Getting Your Boots Dirty: How Volunteering in Africa Changed Me

We arrived at the Liberian refugee camp in the dead of night. The headlights gave me a small taste of what my home would be for the next two months. Tightly packed shacks and shanties cluttered the dark and litter-strewn streets. Our driver navigated the narrow and rutted earthen roads as carefully as he could. Even so the car bottomed out several times before we arrived at the guesthouse for international volunteers.

After a brief tour of the guesthouse by candle- and flashlight, I set up my mosquito net and crawled into bed. It had been a long day.

Toronto, Canada to Frankfurt, Germany. Eight hour layover. Frankfurt, Germany to Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos, Nigeria to Accra, Ghana. And finally the car ride to the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp situated a couple hours outside the city.

Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I listened to a mouse scurry across the rafter above my bed. What am I doing here? I thought to myself as I drifted off to a restless sleep.

An unconventional travel choice

When you think about your travel destination wish list, a refugee camp in Africa may not pop into your head. And when you think about fun activities to do on vacation, back-breaking labor behind a pick axe or being ankle deep in human excrement probably won’t make the cut.

But I had always wanted to travel to Africa. And as a graduate of Development and International Studies, I knew I wanted to skip the safari and resorts and really get my boots dirty. So at age 25, after my contract with work expired, I signed up for a two month trip through an international volunteer placement agency.

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Despite my initial doubts that first night at camp, this experience would turn out to be one of the most rewarding and transformational adventures I’ve ever had.

Digging in

 

I spent my two months on camp volunteering with a community-based organization’s Water and Sanitation team (or WATSAN as it was lovingly referred to as). My days were filled with digging wells and cleaning out sewage drains alongside Liberian refugees and other international volunteers like myself.

With tens of thousands of Liberian refugees living in the camp, access to water was a real challenge. So armed with a rickety wheelbarrow, a pick axe and a few shovels, we did our best to build wells in the community. It was hot, back-breaking work but knowing the value it would bring to the camp made it all worthwhile.

However, the most rewarding part of the job happened in between the swings of the pick axe: during the conversations with the Liberian refugees who were volunteering with us. In their past lives they were teachers and engineers and scientists, among other occupations. Each had a heartbreaking story about how they ended up driven from their homeland by war and tragedy. They had all lost family or friends to the savagery of Charles Taylor.

However, the most rewarding part of the job happened in between the swings of the pick axe: during the conversations with the Liberian refugees who were volunteering with us.

But through incredible odds and unbearable pain, here they were, working with what little resources they had to build a better future. Each was an inspiring demonstration of strength, perseverance, and hard work.

Working alongside these men put into perspective the definition of hardship. Suddenly spending 20 minutes on hold with my phone company didn’t seem so terrible.  We got a couple wells dug while I was there, and I’m grateful for every blister on my hands.

A crappy job

The inadequate sewage system was another serious problem the camp faced. Uncovered drains criss-crossed sections of the camp, and they would often get clogged with debris and all manner of nastiness.

Without the proper flow, human sewage would build up along the crude ducts and become perfect breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes and cholera bacterium.

The most common clogging culprits were black plastic bags of human feces that were tossed into the sewer by nearby residents. Camp residents had to pay to use the few public washrooms available in the camp. With little to no income and no capacity for indoor plumbing, the black bag was the only option for many people.

And so every week the WATSAN crew would gather up their limited tools, consisting of a couple rakes and shovels, and go clean some sewers. WATSAN was composed primarily of local refugee volunteers and a few international volunteers. Those international volunteers were made up of Richard from the UK, Heather from the US, and me from Canada.

As important and beneficial a service as we were providing, you can only shovel human excrement for so long before it starts to wear on you. With the help of a wee bit of creativity however, we found a way to make our smelly job a bit more interesting. Putting our twisted, multinational imaginations to work, we devised a game, using a point system.

The rules were simple: the person with the most points wins. Here’s how the points broke down:

  • 10 points for digging out a mystery Black Bag
  • minus 10 points for puncturing a mystery Black Bag with your rake causing its not-so mysterious contents to ooze out
  • 15 points for an article of clothing
  • 20 points for a feminine hygiene product
  • 25 points for a used condom
  • And the ultimate score: 50 points for a dead chicken

It was a ridiculous game, but it certainly helped pass the time.

Trying to be a superhero

We didn’t spend all our time on camp. Weekends usually involved hopping on a tro-tro (a little and uber-inexpensive bus) and exploring Ghana. It was an opportunity to recharge my batteries and succumb to some of the cravings I’d have for North American creature comforts like air conditioning, a burger, or a soft bed.

One weekend we wanted to kick back and relax at Kokrobite, a very touristy beachside town on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. It was rainy season in Ghana, and although we had had sunny weather for most of the weekend, our luck ran out on the last night of our stay.

After a fun night of partying in a bungalow by the beach, four of us decided to call it a day and make the twenty minute hike back to our hotel.  It had been raining, and raining hard, all evening. Although it had let up in time for us to return to the hotel, the roads had become rivers, making it a treacherous yet amusing trip. Halfway back to the hotel, Travis and I were about twenty feet ahead of Anne and Rob, who were lagging behind.

My conversation with Travis was suddenly interrupted when we heard Rob cry out from behind us. Like the compassionate people we were, both Travis and I started laughing, assuming Rob had just fallen into a puddle. However, our amusement was cut short when we realized the true source of his distress. A man had just ripped Rob’s camera from his shoulder and was now fleeing with it into a dark side alley.

When the moment of shock wore off, Travis cried out, “Give it back, you wanker!” The thief did not obey my Australian friend. And so, armed only with an empty Fanta bottle and a gut full of adrenaline, I joined Travis and chased after the thief. It didn’t take long for us to lose sight of him or for me to remember that I was not, in fact, Batman. As the adrenaline wore off, I quickly realized how exceedingly stupid it was to be chasing a criminal through dark alleys in an unfamiliar town.

What Ghana taught me

Just like I realized I wasn’t a superhero in the back alleys of Kokrobite, I also came to understand that I wasn’t a superhero in camp either. My initial motivations to volunteer in Africa stemmed from a deep desire to help. I wanted to go and make a difference and change lives. In the end though, it was my life that changed. What I gave to the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp pales in comparison to what I got back from the experience.

The images we’re fed of Africa are typically ones of war, famine, and helplessness. My trip to Ghana opened my eyes to see that it’s also a place of rich culture, beauty, history, and hospitality. And while I witnessed a lot of poverty and hardship during my time there, I also saw thriving businesses, Universities, fancy restaurants, high-end markets, and affluence. As with any place, you’re going to find a mix. Ghana was no different, and it taught me the importance of not painting Africa with a single brush.

My initial motivations to volunteer in Africa stemmed from a deep desire to help. I wanted to go and make a difference and change lives. In the end though, it was my life that changed.

Other things stick out in my mind. I remember stepping out of the way as a man raced down the rutted street toward the camp’s clinic, carrying a sick loved one in a wheelbarrow. I’m haunted by the image of Rebecca, a 13-year-old girl, writhing in pain on a clinic bed; her father looking on with as much agony etched on his own face. “The medicine is there,” he told me, “but I can’t afford it.”

When access to healthcare, clean water, food, money, and a roof over my head has always been there, it’s easy to take it for granted. I have a lot to be thankful for, living in a country like Canada. My experience volunteering in Ghana has helped me realize that and continues to help keep things in perspective. It’s also made me more sympathetic to those people living in tough circumstances and has motivated me to help as much as I can.

Forking over money in order to volunteer in a developing country in difficult conditions may not be an obvious vacation choice. But it’s a transformational one. And it’s one that will reward you with a lot more than cheap souvenirs and a sunburn.

To read more transformational travel stories and to learn more about volunteering, check out the following:

Photo credits:  CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Annabel Symington, all others courtesy of the author and my not be used without permission.

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Leave a Comment

  • Sheri Oz said at 2012-12-13T18:51:43+0000: I can really relate to this piece - I have been to Africa 4 times this past year doing humanitarian aid work in South Sudan and Kakuma Refugee Camp. It certainly is a life-transforming experience. I was impressed with the optimism and determination of the South Sudanese people to build a new nation and I was moved by the ways in which they cope with overwhelming difficulties and poverty. Thanks for this story. It's fantastic.
  • Robert Jjuuko said at 2012-12-14T00:19:20+0000: great feedback
  • Robert Jjuuko said at 2012-10-09T22:39:05+0000: life changing perspective.
  • Sheena Seechung said at 2012-07-24T06:51:51+0000: What an incredible post! Josh, you did not only change your life but you also changed the lives of the children and families you’ve helped in Ghana, Africa. It’s disheartening to see the lives of the children growing up in Africa without clean access to water, food, health care and public toilet. Due to unfortunate circumstances, parents fail to sustain and provide the family’s basic necessities, let alone the children’s health. It is no surprise to see malnourished children in Africa. Just imagine how much bags of food restaurant throws every day and goes to garbage due to excess demand. And also try to consider the overall percentage of obese children and American adults in the United States. Try to compare what we eat and serve our families in our dinner tables to the children and families in Africa with empty tables and unclean sanitation. Don’t you realize how lucky we are to be in this position? It’s easy to recognize how fortunate our lives have become compare to the families and children in Africa who are barely getting by in their everyday life. This has been the issue in Africa for many years and it’s very alarming to see how mortality rate escalates every year. Josh’s experiences stir me to realize how fortunate my life has been to have an easy and clean access to almost everything I need in daily basis.
  • Romar Malabug said at 2012-08-14T13:11:48+0000: Good job Josh! Love doing charity works.. I might resign to my current job and planning to do the same thing.. Arrggghh, wish I could do it but thanks for your post, you gave me courage..: ).
  • Nick Lattitude Adie said at 2012-07-03T08:20:44+0000: Hi Josh, thanks for the fantsastic article. Nice to hear you enjoyed your time in Ghana. Lattitude (the charity I work for) sends volunteers to Ghana and, like you they are touched by the xeperience they have there. It is a fantastic country with fantastic people. For those willing to get involved it is an incredible place to volunteer!
  • Tina Sumner said at 2012-07-04T02:40:05+0000: Thanks Josh for sharing your perspective. It makes that type of volunteer experience seem like something I could do.