A Life-Changing Experience Challenge in Ghana

  • Jiah Ham
  • 27 July 2015

With every trip we take, we bring home stories: how we saw the Northern Lights from the airplane on our way to Reykjavik, Iceland; how it felt like we were being showered with stars as we snuggled into our blankets in Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert; how we realised that yes, balsamic vinegar can be taken to the next level in Modena, Italy.

Jiah Ham with William, her host at AfriKids Blue Sky Travel in Ghana

Jiah Ham with William, her host at AfriKids Blue Sky Travel in Ghana. Photo courtesy of AfriKids Blue Sky Travel

But the story I brought back from my Experience Challenge in Ghana with AfriKids’ Blue Sky Travel Ltd. was one about people. And it was one I was not prepared for emotionally.

Finding Perspective and Humility

I first heard about the Experience Challenge through colleagues who had participated in an earlier trip. As the chosen charity of the firm at which I work, AfriKids was offering staff the opportunity to directly experience the impact of the firm’s support. AfriKids’ responsible travel social enterprise, Blue Sky Travel Ltd., was organizing an immersive trip to northern Ghana, where its projects are based, that would centre on a three-day homestay with a local family. Leading up to departure, though, I would raise funds for AfriKids’ child-rights and community-development projects, so I was travelling safe in the knowledge that I was supporting local community projects.

For me, November 2012 was the beginning of a new chapter of my life. I had just started my first “real” job – the first step in my career – for which I had moved to London (a dream!). It was easy for me to think that there wasn’t too much missing from my life. But reading about the Experience Challenge and the purposes for which the funds we raised would be used, I realised that I was in fact missing something – I needed perspective and I needed humility.

Daily life in Ghana’s Upper East Region

Daily life in Ghana’s Upper East Region where the AfriKids Blue Sky Travel Experience Challenge takes place. Photo courtesy of AfriKids Blue Sky Travel

AfriKids gave me the opportunity to find these things. I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before, so my exposure to life in developing regions of the continent had solely been via TV news and documentaries. The trip triggered my curiosity. Throughout the trip, I was saw how AfriKids’ work and the funds raised were actually, tangibly changing people’s lives. The dedication and passion of the local AfriKids team working on the ground was truly inspirational and I really have them to thank for giving me such a wonderful opportunity

On the personal front, I was also able to connect to people in Ghana whom I had never imagined I would meet, let alone form bonds with. I will never forget the conversations I had with my host, William, about family, work, religion, spirituality and how he constantly reminded me to appreciate life. He still does.

A traditional compound home in the rural north of Ghana

A traditional compound home in the rural north of Ghana. Photo courtesy of AfriKids Blue Sky Travel

A Deeply Meaningful Personal Touch

William, the head of the family that hosted me, and his extended family live in the small village of Sirigu, near the town of Bolgatanga in Ghana’s Upper East Region. On the first day of my Experience Challenge, William picked me up on his motorcycle and drove me to his house, where I met his four daughters: Mary, Gladys, Sarafina and Cedonia.

Mary is the eldest and is visually challenged. Given my interest in languages, I asked her to teach me Ghanaian sign language and for hours we bonded as she introduced me to the alphabet and basic phrases. Gladys, who was in her last years of high school, was busy with homework but kindly kept me company when I was at the house, sharing with me her dreams of becoming a medical professional. Sarafina and Cedonia helped me build Lego trucks while watching Ghanaian movies on TV. They also invited me to their local photography studio, where the shopkeeper played music through speakers and let Sarafina and Cedonia dance their to their hearts’ content. William’s family prepared precious guinea fowl for me every evening, and, despite my pleas, would not let me share it with anyone other than William, in keeping with local hospitality practices.

A local community engagement workshop in northern Ghana

William (in dark blue), the author’s homestay host, leads a local community engagement workshop in northern Ghana. Photo courtesy of Jiah Ham

William himself was a rehabilitation officer. He helped visually challenged students learn braille; trained disabled children to sit, stand and walk; worked at the village clinic that treated epilepsy patients; and visited elderly people’s homes to deliver medicine and re-bandage any wounds. He also owned his own pharmacy. For three days, I had the privilege of accompanying William on his daily routines, visiting schools for blind children and the homes of some patients. One day I even worked eight hours straight at the village clinic, handing out medicine to epilepsy patients’ families and keeping records up to date.

In addition to being a rehabilitation officer, William supported a large family. While his wife was studying in Accra in an art school, he lived with his mother, brothers and sisters, all of whom and all of whose families he provided for. He had dreams and plans to make sure his daughters receive higher education. He was so hard working.

local pharmacy in northern Ghana

William, the homestay host, working in his pharmacy in northern Ghana. Photo courtesy of Jiah Ham

Important Realisations

I had been told to expect an experience of a lifetime, one that would open my eyes more and give me new perspective. Indeed it did. I will never truly know what it is like to live in poverty or face the struggles that William, his family and community confront every day. But the Experience Challenge let me enter the world and lives of people who couldn’t wait to welcome, share and learn. Clichéd though it might sound, they taught me so much and opened my eyes, not simply to the material things they lacked, but to the abundance of pride, positivity, compassion and resilience that fills a far larger part of their lives than it does for many.

I couldn’t help but cry when I said my last goodbyes to William and his family. I was so extremely grateful to him for having shown me what it means to be genuinely compassionate, selfless, humble, caring, patient, faithful and hardworking, especially in situations where people are pushed to the limit but some of the most incredible human traits still flourish. There are so many lessons that I took home.

That is my Ghanaian story about people. Some stories are for laughs and giggles, some are for inspiration. And then there are the stories that will never be forgotten.

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Jiah Ham

Korea-born Jiah Ham is a US capital markets lawyer practicing in London. She loves to travel, whether it be short weekend getaways or week-long adventures. She has a passion for foreign languages, which she believes offers insight into different cultures and peoples. Following her Experience Challenge in rural northern Ghana, she keeps in touch with her host family and hopes to visit them again in the future.
Jiah Ham
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Africa, children, Ghana, language, personal experience, poverty, voluntourism, Western Africa, whl.travel,

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