With a combination of excitement and apprehension I boarded a plane bound for the capital of Ghana, Accra, in April of this year.
My two years in Ian’s constituency office had been enjoyable – and eventful to say the least – but with itchy feet and a burning desire to make a difference I had decided to take some time away from politics. I would be throwing myself completely out of my comfort zone, trading Scotland’s beautiful capital for a rural West African town and spending several months as an International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteer in northern Ghana.
Run by the Department for International Development, ICS is a government-funded development programme providing placements for 18-25 year olds. Young people from the UK work side by side with counterparts from developing countries to volunteer in some of the world’s poorest communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
ICS is led by VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) in partnership with a handful of respected development organisations, all of which have a wealth of experience working on the ground in local communities, and their diversity allows volunteers to apply to work in areas that really interest them.
As someone who is passionate about gender equality and the empowerment of women, I applied to work with International Service and was placed with an organisation called TradeAID in Bolgatanga, a town of 70,000 people in Ghana’s Upper East region. Our goal was income maximisation and we aimed to develop the talented local craftswomens’ access to markets and to showcase their unique products which ranged from jewellery and woven baskets to leatherwear and smocks made from handmade fabric. Many of my day-to-day tasks involved building capacity for the annual Bolgatanga International Crafts and Arts Fair (BICAF), and as part of this we had the opportunity to visit local craft producers and businesspeople, speak on local radio, and meet the Upper East Regional Minister.
But although I had applied to ICS to get some experience working in international development, by far the most valuable thing I gained from the process was the cultural exchange. Volunteers are placed in homestays with local families and my host mum and dad – a couple just a few years older than me – became like my big brother and sister. I was taken aback at the friendliness of local people, got used to being greeted by strangers in the street and formed what I am sure will be lifelong friendships with my teammates and a number of Bolga locals.
Photo credit: Mireille Kouyo
The Ghanaians laughed at my pitiful attempts to tackle their huge portions but I embraced the local food and soon got used to drinking water from a bag and eating with my hands. However, while stepping out of the path of wandering cows and goats on my journey to work became the norm, I never did quite manage to get onto “Ghana Time” and my refusal to adopt the languid local walking pace meant I arrived everywhere drenched in sweat, much to my teammates’ amusement!
The beauty of ICS is that there are no barriers to entry. Volunteers don’t need money, skills or particular qualifications to take part – just the enthusiasm and drive to enact real positive change. I had the time of my life in Ghana and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend ICS to anyone who is interested in development, passionate about making a difference or even just ready for an adventure.
For more information about the programme please visit www.volunteerics.org/