Volunteer Work in Ghana: Interview with Brian Hermon

Brian HermonBrian Hermon: Volunteering for an NGO in Ghana.

How valuable are volunteer experiences? And who do they benefit the most: the volunteer or the community being served?

Brian Hermon has done his fair share of volunteering, from an early two-week experience in Costa Rica to longer-term projects in Tanzania, Vietnam, and now Ghana.

In this interview with TravelBlogs, Brian talks about the impact volunteering has had on his life, the work he is doing in Ghana, and some of the difficulties of life in Africa.

Tell us a bit more about the type of work you’re doing in Ghana.

In Ghana I am working to document the activities of the Ghana Accountability Circle over the past two years as well as to conduct a perception survey on NGO accountability. There is an impression in Ghana that NGOs tend to be more accountable to donors and government than to the communities and people that they purport to represent. The Circle has been addressing this accountability deficit by implementing strategies aimed at making Ghanaian NGOs more participatory and transparent. My responsibility has essentially been to assemble all the work they’ve done over the past few years into a report that can be used as a tool for other NGOs to learn from. I’m in the writing stage now, and after the program launches in May I will be working with the new partners on ways in which they can become more accountable to the people they serve.

How did you get this opportunity?

After finishing my undergraduate degree my intention was to spend a year abroad on a development internship before returning to do my masters. Upon graduation I was selected for an internship through Students Without Borders and I spent about 3 and a half months volunteering for an ecotourism NGO in Vietnam. As the internship was winding down I began littering Canadian sending organizations with my CV and eventually I was admitted into a program to work for a refugee organization in the Congo (DRC). However, the internship fell through as the security situation in the DRC worsened and while waiting for a re-posting I again began applying frantically for other opportunities. Thankfully VSO responded and here I am.

This is your second experience in Africa, after you volunteered for another NGO in Tanzania. How do the two countries compare?

Tanzania and Ghana are remarkably similar in terms of their status as the rocks of their respective regions. Both share borders with countries- Ghana with Cote D’Ivoire and nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone, and Tanzania with Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya- that have been home to some of the most brutal conflicts in the world over the past decade or so. Yet, both Ghana and Tanzania have been able to maintain a sense of stability and peace that is the envy of their neighbors. The other great similarity is in terms of the sociability of the people. Overall the people are very outgoing and friendly. I’ve come to Ghana alone but when I leave my house to go anywhere, especially when I sit down to have a beer somewhere, I’m almost always approached by someone who wants to chat. Ghanaians and Tanzanians are very curious people.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether volunteering experiences are of more benefit to the volunteer than to the actual community. As someone who has spent time volunteering, what is your take on this?

Even people who begin volunteering with such self-serving incentives in mind often find themselves so moved by the work they are doing, so absorbed by a newfound sense of purpose, that the experience becomes more meaningful then they could have imagined.

Yes, I’m sure that many volunteer experiences have simply been for self-serving purposes, however, I do not view the problem as endemic. The truth is that volunteering, especially at a young age, is very often about resume building – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Young people especially often crave the chance to free themselves from theoretical shackles and get their hands dirty in practical experience. Certainly there are many who seek nothing more from their volunteer experience than a recommendation, and the hope is that most of these people are weeded out by the sending organization. But it is my experience that people who volunteer in developing countries do so out of a genuine commitment to positive change and not for self-interested motivations. Even people who begin volunteering with such self-serving incentives in mind often find themselves so moved by the work they are doing, so absorbed by a newfound sense of purpose, that the experience becomes more meaningful then they could have imagined. Along with the wealth of practical knowledge and skills that volunteers can offer communities it’s often their enthusiasm that benefits local people the most. New volunteers arrive with an energy and passion that is often lacking from long-time development workers who have, perhaps necessarily, become desensitized. I think that more often than not both the volunteer and the people that a project is seeking to help benefit mutually from the spirit of volunteerism.

What kind of impact did your first volunteer experience have on you?

When I was eighteen I volunteered briefly with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica and essentially spent two weeks digging pipe trenches, mixing cement and laying bricks. I was probably too young to really appreciate the experience and I hardly remember the details of my time there. I consider Tanzania to be my first real volunteer experience. The other volunteers whom I was working with and I spent our nights underneath the tarp of a massive army tent, sleeping on cots, surrounding by a mosquito net. We were about an hour and a half drive from any running water, electricity or food market; and in the afternoon we’d lay solar bags in the sun to have some semblance of a shower. During the day we walked a half hour to the work site where we helped Matumbo village build their first dispensary. After work we’d often walk to the sub-villages to meet with community leaders and try to motivate them to be more actively engaged in the project. The village was completely isolated in the Tanzanian interior and for many of the villagers we were the first white people they had ever seen in their lives. For the first time in Tanzania I saw problems of food and water scarcity, disease, and children being orphaned by HIV/AIDS in front of my eyes. Beyond the influence that the warmth and hospitality of the people of Matumbo had on me, I think that the biggest impact from Tanzania was a desire to be part of positive change no matter how small the role.

What have been some of the most challenging things about living in Ghana?

I don’t really find anything challenging about living in Ghana…which is essentially what I find challenging.

You mean besides almost being sideswiped by tro tros on my daily cycle to and from work? My answer is contradictory. I don’t really find anything challenging about living in Ghana…which is essentially what I find challenging. In complete contrast to the severe but beautiful isolation of Tanzania, life in Ghana, particularly because I live in Accra, is very connected. Yes, there are small challenges like having no running water and finding ways to eat healthy lest I turn into a carbohydrate. There is an internal challenge over the conflict of giving- the lingering guilt over turning down beggars, but the belief that charity may only fuel a dependency and promote an expectation of giving that is unsustainable. But what I find the most challenging is this fear that I have it too easy here. I realize this seems ridiculous to nitpick about- even more so in the African context as if to fault Ghana for being too developed- but I simply mean that I often miss the rugged and more testing environment that was my introduction to Africa in Tanzania. Now, having said that, I’m sure that I’ll contract malaria and be caught in a flood in the coming weeks!

How much opportunity have you had to travel around Ghana? What have been some of the highlights?

While I was conducting the perception survey I was able to travel throughout the Northern and Ashanti Regions of Ghana. After not leaving Accra during my first month I’ve now spent 7 of the past 9 weekends away spending time in almost all of Ghana’s 10 regions. Highlights so far have included the oldest standing slave trading forts in Africa located in Cape Coast and Elmina. The beautiful West African reggae music performed by the African Academy of Music in Krokrobite was also a highlight, as well the beautifully hidden waterfalls near Ho Hoe- the highest in West Africa. The North of Ghana is interesting because it is largely Muslim compared to the Christian South and the difference in culture is very prominent. After my placement ends in Mid-June my girlfriend and I will be traveling for a month and we plan to spend a few days in Mole National Park in the North of Ghana as well as in a hippopotamus and crocodile sanctuary. Following that we’re going to be traveling further North to Burkina Faso and then back South to Accra via Togo.

Check out Brian’s blog, The North West Territory, to read more about his experiences in Ghana.

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Discussion »

  • #1yaovi ahorlu

    nice to hear from your tremendous experiance

  • #2iyke mawuena

    well done and i wish u ahappy stay in ghana

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