Karin Oh | Cincinnati, OH – Medicine, Health, and Society, 2018
Karin Oh is a sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio, majoring in Medicine, Health, and Society. She hopes to combine her interests in science and humanitarian work by pursuing a career in medicine. At Vanderbilt, she devotes much of her time to exploring different ways to improve human health as well as quality of life. She is the founder and president of Lyrical Movements, a service organization which helps provide music therapy services to children with disabilities. This summer, she will travel to Accra, Ghana, to serve as a Literary Clinic Officer for the ACP Street Libraries Project. She will be working with Volunteer Partnerships for West Africa (VPWA), Street Library Ghana, The Global Fund for Children, and Reach for Change in order to launch a permanent reading kiosk where children of the suburb Pokuase can discover reading.
Blog Post One:
The neighborhood goats scamper around the punch buggy parked below my room. A man is singing gospel music in Twi outside my window, his clear, deep voice carrying to the grassy mountains ahead. In the mornings, I wake up to a chorus of roosters and goats as the West African sun brightens the sky.
I’ve been trying to deny that I have any culture shock, stubbornly convincing myself that I’d done enough research on Ghana prior to my trip to prevent too many surprises. But in retrospect, the culture shock started even before arriving in Ghana, 10 hours before, to be precise, when I reached my gate at JFK for my flight to Accra. Everyone was wearing beautiful African patterns on silky fabric while I dragged my purple backpack around wearing my t-shirt and stretchy pants. Groups of people were speaking in Twi, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Besides a couple of white businessmen furiously typing away on their laptops, I was the only light-skinned person in sight. It finally began to register that this was the real deal – this wasn’t Google images or a reference book about Ghana anymore. This flight was also the first time I had African food – beef and potato stew with rice and black beans – which, to be honest, tasted better than any other airplane food I had before.
After I filed my way out of the aircraft and through baggage claim, I was greeted by several friendly taxi drivers asking if I needed a lift. I politely declined, explaining that my ride would be here soon. As I attempted to remain calm on the outside to avoid looking like an easy tourist target, I was internally panicking because this ride I so confidently spoke of was actually nowhere to be found. Finally, a man holding a VPWA sign approached me from behind, and I eagerly hopped into the van to arrive at my new home.
I noticed that a mosquito already got me despite my best efforts in the plane to apply DEET all over before landing. I thought, why are we keeping the car windows open if there are just mosquitos everywhere? Soon, men and women carrying large baskets of food on their heads approached our windows, selling their produce. Now, I was even more amazed that our windows were still open – strangers waving packets of plantains in front of your face while you pass by, isn’t that dangerous? I think to myself, maybe this is what the travel guides mean when they claim that Ghana is a safe, trusting country.
Safe, trusting, and friendly, oh so friendly. It’s expected here to greet people, including strangers, whenever you enter a room, otherwise it’s perceived as rude. It’s also a cultural norm to exchange pleasantries and ask about family before discussing any business, even if you’re just purchasing a piece of fruit.
The children on the street like to point at me and say, “Bronie,” which means “white person,” or, in my case, “foreigner.” They usually smile and wave fervently, but occasionally groups of children will crowd around me and beg for money to pay for food. This makes me feel terrible – how could it not? I know that I shouldn’t give them money, but I always leave with a sense of unjustified guilt.
Fortunately, I do have something to offer to the children that carries a different kind of worth – literacy – the whole reason I have been granted this opportunity to travel to this incredible country thanks to the generosity of the Nichols’. More on this in the next blog!
Blog Post Two:
Throughout my own incredible service experience in Ghana, I’ve curiously perused blog posts of fellow Nichols’ recipients. Reading everyone’s blogs has confirmed my personal belief that volunteering abroad, which is often treated with skepticism, can indeed be beneficial to the communities being served. This is refreshing because I often only hear people talking about volunteering abroad in the context of “voluntourism,” which is the notion that the service trips are more for the tourists’ benefit than the communities being served. This is especially the case with short-term volunteer placements in developing countries. People are often extremely accusatory of volunteers’ motives, automatically assuming that volunteers are only motivated to serve in developing countries for their own personal fulfillment. Articles like this (http://almost.thedoctorschannel.com/14323-2/) claim that the projects are unsustainable and “meaningless.”
The idea of voluntourism as a harmful practice does have some valid points. Some say that volunteers are doing work that could be performed by local people in need of jobs. Parents may take advantage of orphanages with free child care provided by eager tourists. And, of course, there’s always the concern of promoting a Western savior complex.
However, I think that calling the volunteer efforts “meaningless” sounds a bit too harsh, especially when people are just trying to help.
Still, all these generalizations and accusations about volunteering in developing countries made me a bit apprehensive before leaving for Ghana about whether I’d be able to perform meaningful work for the community. Luckily, I had a lot of reasons to believe that VPWA, an NGO, was not a stereotypical for-profit volunteer program. After all, one of the reasons I applied for VPWA in the first place was how strongly its mission and objectives inspired me. The projects are solutions-oriented, meaning that there are tangible goals which the volunteers work toward. Specifically, VPWA’s objectives are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiated by the United Nations, and the NGO has been recognized by the UN numerous times.
So here I am, halfway across the world in Accra. Upon arriving at the volunteer house and office, the executive director of VPWA, Mr. Hayford Siaw, explained to me about how VPWA places sustainable service projects as a top priority. This way, volunteers enable local people to lift themselves out of poverty rather than creating a cycle of dependence. As a Street Library volunteer, my main priority is to work with the VPWA staff to open a new street library in Pokuase. I could see where he was coming from with this; I thoroughly admire those who pour their hearts out to instill a love for learning in others, but for an organization which constantly has people coming and going, it may be easier to believe that opening a library would leave a more permanent impact. Thus, instead of reading with children every day as someone might expect from a volunteer, I mainly work in the office with the VPWA staff in order to launch a Street Library for children living in the suburb of Pokuase.
VPWA’s emphasis on sustainability really resonates with my idea of effective service as the kind that provides disadvantaged groups with the skills and resources that they need to make positive contributions to their own communities. I really admire the logic behind VPWA’s philosophy: a summer service project, although obviously cut short by the length of the academic year, can be sustainable if it’s project-implementing and skills-based. Basically, volunteers apply their skills to perform tasks for relevant projects toward a certain program. For example, as a Street Library volunteer, the project at hand is to launch the Pokuase library as soon as possible. This involves designing the inside of the library, organizing the literature, and figuring out how each child will register for a library membership. Thus, I apply 1) my skills in graphic design to create vibrant posters to cover the walls of the library, 2) my familiarity with children’s books and literacy tutoring to organize the books according to reading level, and 3) my affinity for logistics in order to sort out the library membership registration process.
Although I mainly work in the office and Pokuase library, I also commute to Darmang, a rural village, to teach at the Anoff reading hub built in 2014. These experiences give me a clear idea of exactly how street libraries function. The children are extremely passionate about reading and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Each time, I read through several books with the children, who range from beginners to advanced readers. I prioritize teaching them to incorporate their knowledge of individual letters and sounds in order to be able to figure out how to pronounce each word. This way, I can provide the children with lifelong skills rather than merely with answers when they ask me, “Madame, what is this word?” I also make sure that they understand what they read by pausing after every page and either playfully quizzing them or explaining the meaning myself.
Whether I’m working on Adobe InDesign in the office or sounding out words with the children in the village, I feel productive and useful every day. There is never a moment when I am sitting around waiting for my next task, and I am so grateful for that. My service trip may not be extremely lengthy, but from my end, I have absolutely no doubt that my work will leave a lasting impact on the Pokuase and Darmang communities which I have quickly grown to love.