Victoria Sunseri - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad? 

Having a humanitarian-driven heart means that I want to use my life to serve others. As such, I originally intended to travel to Ghana in order to complete a community development service project with my school in the impoverished area of Nabdam. When deciding to embark on this endeavour through my school, I decided that I wanted to maximize the positive impact that I could make whilst there, and therefore I decided to research volunteer programs that I could join after my school trip finished.

Ghanaian host family with foreign guest

My lovely host family

Why did you choose Our Generation Voluntary Organizations (OGVO)?

I chose O.G.V.O as the organisation to volunteer through as it was a registered charity with a reference number for verification, it allowed me to specifically tailor my project to what I wanted to focus on (which was emotional and literacy development through guided reading), and they had great communication. Whenever I had a question or concern, my email or text inquiry was answered in a day or less in a professional and attentive manner.

What was your favorite part about Ghana?

The people were definitely my favorite part of the trip. From the conscientious demeanour of my volunteer director to my welcoming host family to the near-constant greetings from people on the street and the energy of the children and acts of kindness by strangers, it seemed as if almost everyone was willing to ensure my safety, care, and happiness.

What made your experience in Ghana unique? 

Ghana is underdeveloped. It is not a country where many people think to traverse as often as developed countries, such as Spain, England, Italy, or Ireland. It is certainly not the hottest tourist destination (except for maybe Cape Coast). Even so, being a tourist and being a volunteer are completely different experiences in the country.

To live with a host family, travel and eat the way the locals do, and to be in a foreign country with unfamiliar people, customs, and languages was a completely immersive experience.

Volunteer taking selfies with Ghanaian orphans

Taking selfies at the orphanage

For the duration of my trip, I had only the familiarity of the home that which is my corporality, my four bags, and sporadic communication with my Mom that I clung to; otherwise, I was on my own.

I believe that one of the most interesting aspects of my time in Ghana was my perspective shift in the way that I viewed myself. Growing up in America with diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. in abundance, it never truly occurred to me that others were not exposed to the same way of living too. I am a white American. In Ghana, being a white American means that you are wealthy, and according to some Ghanaians I spoke with, "better". Obviously I do not agree with this perspective as I am college student with thousands of dollars in loans and scholarships, and certainly I am not "better". It was the first time in my life I truly, personally felt the weight of the privilege of the circumstances I was born into.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

As a 20-year old pursuing this program alone and with no contacts in Ghana to begin with, I was astounded by the care and support I received from Frank, one of the program directors that was assigned to coordinating my trip and my host family. Upon arrival, I was immediately welcomed into a loving household that was always checking to ensure my satisfaction with their care and any problems I might be encountering.

Frank was marvelous. A very sweet-hearted gentleman, he always made sure I was safe and happy. Honestly, Frank became my best friend for the two weeks I was a part of the program. He traveled with me to meet my host family, rode the tro-tro (local bus) with me to work until I felt comfortable riding alone, always walked with me to and from the tro-tro station, suggested local foods to try, accompanied me on a trip to the Kakum national park, Cape Coast, and Elmina Castle, and was always good at communicating plans. To attest to his character anecdotally: one time the tro-tro driver forgot to drop me off at my correct stop and I didn't know where I was. Frank directed me to have a local tell him where I was and then proceeded to ride the tro-tro to come pick me up. One time I didn't budget my money correctly and I didn't have enough to purchase something I wanted, and Frank lent me the money.

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

I now wish I had chosen another avenue of volunteerism. This is not because my experience was necessarily negative, as the children never ceased to make me smile, but for the reason that I believe the significance of my impact was minuscule. Although I painted a handprint mural with the kids in the orphanage dining hall, I did not fulfil the mission of the project I had originally designed. The language barrier between the children and I was more immense than I had planned for. As such, I feel as though I could have gotten more out of the volunteer program if I had pursued a different project.

Describe a typical day in your life in Ghana.

The starting and closing times of my project were flexible and were dependent upon what I wanted to do with the children on a particular day. Usually however, I would wake up around 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., get dressed, and have tea with some type of bread or oatmeal. I would leave for work around 10 a.m., with lunch that my host-mother would pack, usually rice or noodles with some type of meat and vegetables. Frank would walk with me to the tro-tro, ensuring that I got on the right bus, and I would be on my way to the orphanage at around 10:15 a.m.

Volunteer with local women at an orphanage in Ghana

Talking with the ladies from the orphanage as they are being taught to sew

Upon arrival at around 10:45 a.m., I would be greeted by children sprinting to give me hugs, and then we would proceed to the library at the orphanage. Here, I would read to the children for hours going word-by-word and line-by-line through entire books working on pronunciation and reading skills, as well as recognition of emotional facial expressions of book characters in pictures.

At around 3 p.m., depending on the day, I would take the tro-tro with Frank back to my host family or to some other endeavour. I would be home around 5 p.m. for the remainder of the day (usually). I would be served dinner by my host mother when she returned from work, which was usually eggs or chicken and rice or noodles with vegetables.

This is a basic description of the skeleton of my days, but many times this varied because I went to the internet cafe or on cultural excursions to the market, the cultural center, and I even accompanied my host family to a funeral for their neighbours' family member one time.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

My favorite thing to do in my free time every day was simply to talk to my host family and to people that I would meet, because they all had such different perspectives and knowledge than that which I had come to the country bearing. My favorite thing to do was to learn, think about, and value the differences we have in the way we live our everyday lives. Also, I enjoyed thinking about the possibilities for improvement in the country and about what I could do in the future if I were to ever return.

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

My accommodation was a simple room, with a bed, mosquito net, shelf-like wood furniture piece, mirror, fan, lock, and window. The house I lived in was very big compared to many I had seen, and was gated, so I felt safe. I liked that everyone lived together. In Ghana, having extended family living in one house is not uncommon, and therefore uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and grandparents, and family friends, all lived together. I liked best that everyone looked out for one another and contributed their own part of living in the home. Also, the food that my host mom cooked was usually really good, and I always looked forward to finding out what she had made.

What is one thing every participant should know before volunteering in Ghana?

Corporal punishment for children is extremely common. As I said before, I am a humanitarian, and therefore, witnessing parents inflict physical punishment on children and also witnessing children inflict physical punishment on one another was heartbreaking for me. I took a day off from the orphanage after watching two vicious fights in one day between older children at the orphanage. I would have intervened had I known Twi and been more physically adept to break up the fight. I was disappointed in the lack of prompt action by orphanage staff. It is a common occurrence though, so just be prepared to see it happen.

Handpainted mural at an orphanage in Ghana

Handprint mural in the dining hall at the orphanage - Abusua means family in Twi

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

Now that I am home, in my developed country with my paved, clean streets, potable running water, toilets that flush, and more food varieties than I could ever want, I feel as though I had dreamt of the trip. I feel as though I went back in time to a foreign place, but I know that this is not the truth. The truth is that people live the way they show on those devastating donation commercials. People live in huts, sleep on benches, and burn trash to keep it from swallowing them whole. People live in the hopes to live in America for a better life that they can have a consistent paycheck and a better future for their children.

I know now that the past is not as far removed as we'd like to think living in our cushy, two car garage, white-picket fenced homes. The past is alive and unwell, and people are suffering in the wake of the weight of exploitation developed nations left generations to bear. I have learned, truly learned, the unfairness of where one is born. I've put heartbeats to weary faces that balance far more than bowls of goods to sell on their heads. I will try to live a life knowing that even the most impoverished person in America, lives in a place where opportunity is more abundant than where I have been.

Would you recommend OGVO to others? Why?

I would definitely recommend my program provider to others. As aforementioned, I had a great experience with the program director and my host family. I would not recommend my orphanage program specifically, however, because I felt as though the communication of what resources I had access to were not very clear and that the language barrier was far too great to make any real difference.