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Volunteering in Ghana, Africa: A Dublin High School Alum’s Story

September 6, 2010

Given how the mainstream media treats Africa, as a soundbite or homogeneous state, it is easy to forget that Africa is a continent.  Africa, the continent, is home to more than a billion people, a rich tapestry of 54 sovereign states, where well over 1,000 languages are spoken and every one of the world’s major religions observed.  The experience of Kelsey Finnegan can’t even begin to tell the story of Africa and this article won’t try.  This is a story of one determined individual helping the children of a remote village in Ghana, Africa.

Kelsey Finnegan graduated from Dublin High School in 2007, went on to attend Santa Barbara City College before transferring to the UC Santa Barbara for her junior year of college (majoring in Communications with a minor in Global Studies).  Kelsey grew up in Dublin and attended Frederiksen Elementary School and Wells Middle School before moving on to Dublin High.  After graduating from high school Kelsey worked towards fulfilling a childhood dream of volunteering in Africa – an idea that required research, planning, money and (reluctantly at first) the support of her parents.

“The town of Hohoe, (pronounced Ho-hway) where we live, is small and very rural. It is all dirt roads, shacks with roofs of tin and goats EVERYWHERE. I could go on and on about the goats. They are everywhere. They just roam the streets. Apparently everyone knows which goat is theirs and they go home at 6 to be fed along with the chickens and sheep.” – Kelsey Finnegan’s blog – Confessions of a Ghanaholic

Kelsey’s journey started in the summer of 2009, as a teacher for 60 children at the Divine Star International School in Hohoe, Ghana (coordinated through Cross Cultural Solutions, a charitable organization that places volunteers).  About half of the children at the school are orphans, and the rest are sent there by parents who pay a tuition of about US$6 per year.  Like many volunteers, Kelsey was given logistics support to get to Ghana, but little in the way of training on the ground.  Without any formal training in education Kelsey started creating lesson plans and adjusting to a culture where children are accustomed to corporal punishment (an approach Kelsey refused to adopt).

“Let me take a moment to describe the kids to you… many of them are bruised and have giant scars. Many have black holes in their teeth (which you easily forget about with their big smiles), they are covered in ringworm, open wounds all over their bodies… but these are not the sad, defenseless faces you so often see as flickering lights on your television screens, they are happy. They jump and play and put their arms around each other and laugh hysterically, particularly at me. They are incredibly self-sufficient and smart, a one year-old walks around alone and takes care of himself, but still they watch out for each other.”  – Kelsey Finnegan’s blog – Confessions of a Ghanaholic

Kelsey promised her students she’d return – a risky promise given most volunteers do not return after the challenges of their first experience.  In this case the promise was kept not once but multiple times – and with more ambitious goals.  In her most recent trip she piloted a girl’s empowerment program (focused on self-esteem), fought through many obstacles to build a dormitory to house 20 orphans and continued teaching.  Kelsey knew as little about being a contractor at first as she did about teaching – yet found a way.

Kelsey is still working on learning Ewe, the language spoken in Hohoe, Ghana. Ewe is a tonal language (Chinese is the most widely spoken tonal language) where meaning is in part based on the tone or pitch of the words spoken.  The fundamental differences of a tonal language, and the challenge of learning a language that is in large part not written down, means that Kelsey relies on her young students to act as translators (children in Ghana start learning English at age 6).

Despite a self-imposed rigorous schedule, Kelsey has found time during her trips to Ghana to explore the natural beauty of Ghana – from Wli Falls to Mount Afadjato.  Kelsey and her fellow volunteers even were able to finesse their way to see President Obama speak during his July 2009 visit to Accra, Ghana.  “We stood there and watched as Obama walked onto the stage with the President of Ghana. We watched a moment in history. He spoke about the progression of Africa, about inspiring change and making change happen and stopping preventable diseases like polio and typhoid.”

Having recently returned from over two months in Ghana, Kelsey plans to dive into her UC Santa Barbara studies while planning her next trip to Hohoe.  Her long-term goals will almost certainly involve continuing to support the children of Ghana – perhaps through the creation of a philanthropic business like TOMS (TOMS Shoes donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased).

“Life in Ghana is strange. It sucks you in, strips you of all that you think you know. There are few certainties here. I think that may also be why it is so weird to go home. So weird to be thrust into modern life, and all you can do is wonder how these two places exist in the same world.”   – Kelsey Finnegan’s blog – Confessions of a Ghanaholic

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