The Volunteering experience

Written by: Georgia Tanner, Volunteer (georgiatanner@gmail.com)

Background

  • Toronto High Schools HIV/AIDS peer educator
  • Volunteered in Costa Rica at an eco-tourism destination
  • Bachelor’s Degree from University of Western Ontario in Political Science & English, where Georgia spent more time on various extra-curricular and volunteer projects than on class material
  • Spent 2 months at Light for Children doing HIV/AIDS education, outreach and intervention programs, following her dream of becoming a fufu connoisseur and consuming as much of her host mum Maria’s “red sauce” as humanly possible
  • Currently in Canada working on Light for Children fundraising initiatives and wishing she was back in Ghana

BLOG

I decided to volunteer with Light for Children Ghana without knowing what to expect; my knowledge about Ghana came only from a travel guide book and what I read online, and the scope of my knowledge about HIV/AIDS in Africa was equally limited. Although I knew about the AIDS pandemic in Africa and was aware of the problems of accessibility and the complex funding challenges that many countries face, I don’t think I was able to fully understand the way the disease affected so many aspects of life in Ghana, nor was I able to put a human face to the disease in an African context.

My experience of the disease was confined within the context of the Western world. Although I had lost a family friend to AIDS when I was quite young, in my world, the fight against AIDS seemed to be one we were winning. I knew that the ART drugs were getting better all the time, that the disease appeared to be under control, and that medical research was constantly making progress. Realistically, I knew that the situation wouldn’t be as promising in Africa, where a variety of problems make access to the latest drugs, medical care and education difficult. However, until I arrived and saw firsthand how difficult it was to be living with AIDS in Ghana, I didn’t understand just how frustratingly unfair the situation was.

As soon as I arrived in Kumasi to work with Light for Children, I began to hear stories of AIDS and meet those who were most affected by it. As I listened and learned, I realized that even though I knew about the AIDS pandemic, even though I was aware of the shocking statistics, I had never before faced the human element. Confronting the reality of the disease and its devastating affect on people who I would come to call my friends was the hardest part of the experience for me. At times it was difficult to keep a positive attitude, and sometimes I gave in to very bitter sentiments over the unfairness of it all.

However, the example set by Yaw Otchere Baffour, my host father and the founder of Light for Children Ghana made it easier for me to approach the problem and realize the ways I could help to make a difference. Although Yaw deals with serious and disheartening situations nearly every day, he remains unwaveringly positive. I distinctly remember the first night we arrived in Kumasi at Yaw’s; he told us it was his dream that every HIV positive child would realize that he or she could be an achiever. Throughout the experience I saw again and again how dedicated Yaw was to this dream; while I was there I watched him work tirelessly on committees and boards, saw him visit the homes of those affected by HIV/AIDS and give them support and advice, and I saw the hope he gave to the AIDS support group he helped to organize.

Although I knew there would be a local response to AIDS, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t expect it to be as widespread, innovative, and effective as it was. People like Yaw impressed me with how much change and hope they could bring with so few resources. Because of the local connections Yaw has, Light for Children is able to help people individually in a personal way, which is important to fighting the feelings of isolation that HIV/AIDS can bring to a family. Before I went to Africa, I thought that the Western aid organizations would be the biggest presence in Ghana, which simply isn’t the case: the locally-run NGOs dedicated to fighting AIDS were the ones I saw making a difference.

As I realized how effective these local organizations were, I felt a little ashamed. Although I was making a difference and helping the organization, wouldn’t it have been better if I had just given Light for Children (or an organization like it) the money I had spent on the plane ticket? In one of our frequent conversations about aid NGOs, Yaw explained to me why oversees volunteers are important. My presence in Ghana with Light for Children showed the people there that many of us in the West do care about the AIDS pandemic, and we were able to trade information about how each of our countries were dealing, and what kind of support they offered. International volunteers at Light for Children were even able to speak about these things on the radio in Ghana, and share our experiences with a larger audience. In addition, so many people see or hear about AIDS in Africa only through the Western media, which only shows a small part of the problem. The stories that HIV/AIDS volunteers bring back to their countries help to put a human face on the problem, which encourages and inspires people to take action on this distant problem.

Back in Canada, I feel as if my perspective on Africa and the AIDS epidemic is forever changed. Problems, issues, and people that once felt distant are now close to me, and I hope that even though my time in Ghana has ended, my work for this cause has just begun.

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