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Our medical and orphanage project in Ghana

Jonny Stephens
Rachael Brown

Two Budehaven Students, Jonny Stephens and Rachael Brown, spent a month in Ghana in the summer, working as hospital and orphanage volunteers.

Africa! Outward bound from Heathrow for a month working as volunteers in a hospital and an orphanage in Ghana, West Africa! It hardly seemed possible that we had got our act together in such a short time. It was only back in May that the two of us decided that it was seriously worth trying to raise the cash concerned – over £2,500 at least – for the experience of a lifetime, and that even before our A levels were completed!

We are both in the Sixth Form at Budehaven, and both of us, Jonny Stephens and Rachael Brown, wanting to make a career of medicine. We figured that if we could get some practical experience of health care in a Third World country, in addition to the time each of us had spent with GPs and in hospitals in the westcountry in the past year, this would stand us in really good stead when we started to apply for University places, and medical schools. We had both been fired up with the idea by participating in Medlink, arranged by Nottingham University for would be medical students, in the early spring of this year, and then we started researching on the internet, and found various organisations offering volunteer placements all over the world, teaching English, helping in hospitals and HIV/AIDS clinics, conservation projects – there are thousands of opportunities for people our age to gain fantastic experiences whilst we are still quite young.

THE COSTS

But it costs! The volunteer placement itself is never less than £1,200; then there is the cost of getting there, maybe another £500-£700; then the inoculations which you have to obtain in order to be allowed into the country – for Ghana, Yellow Fever, Malaria, Rabies for starters; and that can eat up another £150 or more; then there are the extra clothes and supplies you need, which vary from mosquito nets to water purification tablets, to lightweight clothing. It all adds up …. And then you have to think about the hidden extras – the costs of getting to and from the UK airport, and getting visas or, in the case of hospital volunteers, ‘scrubs’ and antiseptic gel and all the little things you need, not to mention enough spending money for a month in a country you don’t know too much about!

So we got a lot of advice from the internet and plumped for Global Volunteer Projects, who place volunteers all over the world. But even so, you hear a lot about companies ripping people off on GAP year projects before Uni, and so we approached the Chair of Governors at School, Jeremy Dowling, for a bit of practical help, since we knew his daughter had gone to Alaska with the help of the local Lions Club. He soon made it very clear that to raise the kind of money we needed in three months would be really difficult: ideally we should have started back in the autumn, but we both reckoned that, using some of our earnings and savings, and, if we were really lucky, with some support from local businesses and individuals, families and friends it should just about be possible.

We enlisted the readers of our local newspaper The Post and set about our fund raising activities before we set off, culminating in a memorable fundraising Wine and Wisdom and Auction at Bude Rugby Club just before we set off, which cleared over £1600, thanks to fantastic support from friends, families and local businesses. That was a brilliant send off and we'd like to thank everyone for all their help, and especially our parents and Jeremy, for whom nothing was ever too much trouble.

WORKING IN CAPE COAST, GHANA

After a stop in Cairo we flew to Accra, the capital of Ghana. We were not going to be based in Accra, but further up the coast, so spent that night in a pretty basic hotel in Accra before setting off for Cape Coast, which was where we were going to be for the whole of our placement. Accra is prosperous and quite westernised and much bigger than we’d expected, and we went by very crowded bus the following morning up to Cape Coast – that was several hours drive and we began to see more of what we expected of Africa. On the outskirts of Accra there were shanty towns, and they were really poor; huts with no windows and often no roofs either, open drains everywhere, and very obvious poverty: the animals by the huts were as skinny as the people. As we got closer to Cape Coast the shanty towns improved: there were windows and doors, and people by the roadside selling food, trinkets, clothing.

Cape Coast itself is beautiful, with big trees and old buildings, and, at least where we were, no huts or any sense of the shanty towns. But we soon learnt that towns in Africa may be beautiful, but they smell, and the noise is incessant! Especially the taxis, which are everywhere, and as we soon learnt, brilliant and very cheap (15p for a quarter an hour’s drive) Drivers hoot their horns at anyone, just to draw attention to themselves, or often just for the hell of it! Eric Essuah, the Ghanaian who represents Global Volunteer Projects in Cape Coast took us to lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean – definite waves but not like Bude, and most of them dumping. Then we changed some money – and yes, it’s definitely true Barclays do have branches everywhere! Cedi (1 cedi is worth 50pence) is the currency in Ghana and we were soon going to get very used to them. We also learnt very quickly that things in Ghana are definitely very cheap indeed!

Rachael and Jonny started off with two different Ghanaian families, about a quarter of an hour apart. Alternative accommodation could have been in hostels, but both wanted to be with families. Each family also housed one or two other volunteers, though these were changing as some were finishing their stint in Ghana, and others would come in as Jonny and Rachael were leaving. Jonny takes up the story

The family where I was staying were very much into public life; Mr Cann, a contractor, is also a very busy Vice President of the New Political Party which is very active in Ghana at the moment, in the run up to elections next month. They have two sons, Thomas, who is 22 and works in newspapers, and Tashi who is 12 and was fantastic with us. He always fed us at lunch time when we came back from the hospital, and he was great fun to have around. He gave us huge meals, always, as with all food in Ghana very spicey; there was always rice, and a homemade sauce and beef or chicken, and often ground nut soup. Yes, it was different, but we hadn’t gone to Ghana to be the same as at home, and really everything was an experience. The family were really interested in us as volunteers, and especially why we had wanted to come to Ghana, which they thought was fantastic, that we wanted to go there rather than anywhere else. Accommodation was fairly basic, but contrary to what we had been led to believe before we went out, the electricity worked, and the water was hot when needed!

It’s worth mentioning too that there were really no 'westerners' in Cape Coast except for the volunteers with the various groups who were working there, and our ages were anything from 16 (like me when we first got there) to about 23. Some were medical students at Uni, a few were doing six or three months of a Gap year, several were waiting for A Level results. And everyone got on fantastically well – I suppose largely because everyone out there was there for a purpose, but that didn’t stop us being able to have brilliant times in the evenings and at the weekends. The Ghanaians were so amazingly friendly and welcoming wherever we went, so we never felt threatened or worried about being on our own in a foreign country. There is the great thing of course in Africa about hospitality and the honoured guest – there is a real duty and responsibility felt by all Ghanaians to make people feel welcome.

The days quickly fell into a pattern for Jonny and Rachael; from Monday to Friday, every morning was spent working in the Hospital

We had both spent time working in hospitals in the UK before we went, and shadowing nurses, GPs, surgeons or consultants, so we were allowed to participate very fully in the life of the Hospital. This was the University of Cape Coast Hospital, a 20 bed unit, with a male and female ward and a small maternity and paediatric unit. In local terms, it was bigger than Stratton Hospital, but much less well equipped, and seriously understaffed. Every morning we got to the Hospital by eight and stayed until around 1.30. We were never idle, because we made it very clear that we wanted to be used – some of the girls from other volunteer projects did not fare so well, but, largely because of our experience and our attitude we were always on the wards, rather than doing desk work. We also took our turn on night duty on the wards, which meant you got to do ‘vitals’ – that is checking patients’ Blood Pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and Temperature .

ON THE WARDS

Jonny and Rachael in their donated scrubsFrom day one we wore our sets of ‘Scrubs’ kindly donated by AW Bent and Sons, whose business at Stratton is one of the leading suppliers to the medical profession. The scrubs had been named, and printed with the Cornish logo, and they were a real talking point. The Nurses were desperate to have a set, and that was something to remember as time went on. Although both of us had taken out stethoscopes, only doctors wear stethoscopes – so put one round your neck and everyone thinks automatically that you are a doctor! That was a lesson quickly learned! The doctors and surgeons were very happy for us to observe operations and to participate in hospital life as fully as was sensible. So we talked to patients, prepped them for operations by shaving them, trolleying them to theatre, staying with them during their op, and taking them back to the ward afterwards. On our first day alone, literally within hours of going into the hospital we were allowed to observe a birth by Caesarean section, which was a fantastic experience. The two of us were always allowed to follow the Doctors on their ward round, and we were encouraged to ask questions and to make comments, so that often we felt that we were being treated as med.students, which was strange in some ways, but also very gratifying.

There is no National Health Service in Ghana, as we understand it here, but the Government has introduced a system of health insurance which they hope will become the norm for everyone in time. People pay the equivalent of £20 a year for medical insurance, and that covers pretty well everything. If you are ill and you go to a hospital, or a doctor, you produce your medical card, and then you can be treated. No card – no treatment – unless you pay for it on the spot. Whilst we were at the Hospital only four cases were refused treatment because of lack of insurance: they are tough about it, so everyone knows the score. The biggest reason for being in hospital in Cape Coast was definitely malaria, in any one of its four recognised types; that usually meant a three day stay, antibiotics and then the temperature came down, and out you went again. For men, the most common complaint was hernias – some of the biggest you could imagine! It was quite common to see a swelling the size of a football; we also saw a lot of cases which required the removal of fibroids – usually benign tumours which can develop on the wall of the womb. We observed three caesarean births, hysterectomies, tonsillectomies and paediatric (childhood) hernias, as well as seeing how biopsies of breast lumps are carried out. There was never a time when we were excluded from anything, which gave us a great feeling of being wanted and trusted.

When the morning’s work at the Hospital was completed, Rachael and Jonny went home for a quick lunch. Then, they made their way to the Orphanage where they spent the afternoons with the children, entertaining them or doing projects to improve the building or the grounds. Rachael explains:

The Human Service Trust Orphanage was run by Madame Nancy assisted by a man whom we only knew as Father. Part of the money which we paid for our placement went straight to Madame Nancy – that was our direct contribution to the Orphanage, and we were pleased about that. The children were aged from 6 to 14, and all, in one way or another, clearly vulnerable children, and very evidently starved of affection. They just longed to be loved, and played with – and they were, whatever their age, crazy for football! So that kept us fit! It was entirely up to us how we amused them; there were around 30 kids in all, and 15 of those were residents, the rest came in by day and went somewhere else at night. We never really had any answers if we tried to ask Madame Nancy questions about why they were orphans, or any of their history. The subject was always quickly changed! Four of the other volunteers had decided to create a garden, and hedges to shelter the children from the open sewer that ran beside it, so Jonny and I helped to finish that off; and we did some painting of the house for Madame Nancy but most of the time it was really energetic play – the kids never stopped. They were really thrilled with all the things we had brought out from Cornwall for them – especially the bendy pencils, and Jonny’s dad had given masses of John Deere caps, which everyone wore, and which really signalled them out as something special. Madame Nancy was good about the things we gave the children; they were collected in at the The children and their John Deere Hatsend of the day and given out again later, so that they would have them for school when that started again. And that was an interesting thing we learnt – before you go to school your head is shaved, though whether that is for health reasons or something else, we never found out.

After a working day lasting from 8 till 6.30, Jonny and Rachael enjoyed a shower and a massive family meal before sampling some of Ghana’s evening life…

Yes, we did work really hard, every day, and yes we enjoyed every minute of it. But Cape Coast was a town where the only 'westerners' – and the Ghanaian word for westerners is abruni – were the volunteers. So there were always plenty of under 25 year olds wanting a bit of relaxation at the end of the day. Let’s face it, we may have worked hard, but we played hard too! We were heading up to a big religious festival in the Cape Coast region, so there were some restrictions on bands and music in the run up to the festival, but that didn’t stop people really enjoying themselves, and everyone was just so laid back and welcoming.

Living in Ghana was cheap, and drink there was cheaper still! 60p for a pint of beer or a double whisky and coke; 10p or 20p for shots – but we saw no drunkenness in the bars or clubs. We did have some fantastic evenings, met all kinds of brilliant people – in Ghana you always shake hands with everyone on first meeting – and got on really well with the other volunteers, who came from all over the world, not just the UK. Most were there like us, for about a month, and we certainly felt we had chosen to be in the right place – out of town in some of the rural areas it could have been a bit boring, and certainly there would not have been the night life like there was in Cape Coast.

At weekends, the volunteers were encouraged to make their own arrangements to get out and about and see more of Ghana.

There were several places we went, and getting there always involved travelling in a tro-tro, a kind of jampacked minibus, where you might have to share the overcrowded journey with a bucket of slopping fish, or a woman laden down with plastic bottles. This was certainly the real Ghana, no question! A couple of hours north of Cape Coast was the Kakum National Park and we stayed at Hans Cottage, a kind of hotel above the water -awesome. They have about twenty crocodiles there, which they entice out of the water for you to touch – pretty scary in a totally cool sort of way. Kakum was the first place to have an aerial walkway through the canopy of the rainforest, and that was really impressive; it was a thin rope bridge suspended in the trees about 40metres up – absolutely amazing. We got there really early before there were too many people about, which was good, and it was really nice to have a couple of days away from Cape Coast, to relax and see something quite different from our working week.

Another place we really enjoyed was the Bay Inn at Takoradi. That was an amazing place, and to give an idea of the prices: £30 for two nights accommodation, all meals, all drinks, snacks, use of the private beach- fantastic value. It is run by English people, and in some ways could be a bit less satisfying than the places entirely run by the Ghanaians, but they looked after us brilliantly. There were lots of volunteers there, some doing medicine, some dentistry and we had a couple of really good weekends there with different friends. At the Bay Inn you can go turtle watching – for one very brief spell in the year, when the moon and the tides are just right, the turtles come out of the sea in their hundreds to lay their eggs on the beach, and that is really something to see. So we got woken at several different times in the two nights to walk the beach in the moonlight, waiting for the turtles. They didn’t come, but it really was beautiful, and unforgettable, with the sounds of Africa around you in the night. It was also possible to paddle out to the stilt village – the name says it all: the whole place is built on stilts above the water, and is in many ways really primitive – the toilets there were about as basic as any in the world: a hut with a seat and a hole above the lake from which people fished and drank and where they washed their clothes. We were going to go out fishing with some of the local people, but the weather turned nasty – it rained hard for Jonny’s seventeenth birthday, so the fishing didn’t happen; but the birthday certainly did!

The two Budehaven students came back to Cornwall towards the end of August, for the final year of their A levels, and applications for University places. So was it all worth it?

Neither of us would have missed it for worlds! It was in every way a once in a lifetime experience, though we both feel that we would love to go back once we are qualified. It has been of fantastic value in putting together our references for University, and will undoubtedly come in very useful if we get asked to interview. Since our return we have done a presentation to The Rotary Club in Bude, because they kindly sponsored us, and we are intending also to do something similar for the Blanchminster Trust who were brilliant in the support they gave, which was enormously helpful. But so many people, friends at school, relations, local businesses, schools, teachers and mates from the Surf Club, the Rugby Club or swimming have helped us, that we thought it would be great to have an opportunity through the pages of this newspaper to say ‘Thank you’ to everyone who helped in any way. We really learned a lot and Ghana far exceeded every expectation.

And on a final note – if anyone is thinking of doing volunteer work overseas, we would both say – “Go for it!” But plan well in advance, book flights as soon as you can. We budgeted originally for £2,500 each but it was worth every penny of it!

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