Workaway seemed like the perfect idea: linking those needing volunteers with those looking to volunteer. Without the extortionate volunteer fees it was affordable and for some projects there was even a direct exchange of volunteer time for accommodation and sometimes food. However, after months of research we turned up in Ghana, and in less than 72 hours, it was all over.
The Workaway concept
It’s a simple concept – there are people in need of help all over the world. This is not restricted to the developing world even though this is what people usually think of as the main locations where volunteering occurs. In fact some of the most developed countries have the greatest number of opportunities listed on Workaway – though this is most likely to be due to an increased level of access to the internet in order to post such opportunities.
Then there are people looking to volunteer. There are many reasons why someone might choose to volunteer including:
- a desire to visit a particular country
- wanting to learn more by living within a community rather than viewing it purely from the outside as just a tourist
- needing to gain experience in a particular field as part of a requirement for a course e.g. international development
- to try out an area before embarking on a career path e.g. teaching or childcare
- a burning desire to help? – maybe I’m a little cynical but I have yet to meet anyone for which this is the only reason
- voluntourism and an opportunity to take a selfie in a poor, remote location – not a great reason but unfortunately this is on the rise!
Where does Workaway come in?
Workaway provides a place for this exchange to take place without the need for volunteers to sign up to expensive companies; have to fundraise thousands to join an established charity or have to arrive in country first and then just wing-it! Those looking for help (the hosts) can produce an advert about the opportunity outlining what help is required and what they are providing in exchange. Those looking to volunteer (the Workawayers) can view hosts for free and for a small annual fee can contact hosts and other Workawayers. There is even a review system allowing you to find out how others found the project and even contact them for further information.
Our Workaway experience
We (and by “we” I mean “I”) spent months romanticising about travelling the world for next to nothing, hopping from one Workaway experience to another. Sure, there are people who have and are doing just that. If that’s what you want to do then go for it! However, when it came to planning our last three months of volunteering (as part of our two year RTW trip) we were looking to stay focused in one area and as we had a friend over in Ghana at the time, settled for West Africa.
Even though one of the most attractive aspects of Workaway is that you can, in some instances, volunteer for free (with a direct exchange of work for room & board), we opted for accommodation only. We felt that the project we found in Ghana was worth the extra expenses (food & transportation) as it seemed from the extensive communication that this was a well developed project similar to the GEMS School we had visited in Sainji, India. And so we applied for our visas, organised our vaccinations, booked and boarded a plane, before touching down in Accra.
The project potential
After two flights with Ethiopian airlines, which only served to make us want to visit there as our next African destination, we arrived in Accra. Our host met us at the airport and was full of excitement as he discussed the possibilities of getting us to provide in-country training to teachers in both Accra and Kumasi. We were feeling pretty confident at this point and relieved that everything seemed to be working out.
It was a long trip up to Kumasi but our host had arranged for one of the teachers to accompany us and she remained with us until we had settled into our accommodation, even taking the time to organise food for us from a local street vendor.
Our accommodation had everything we needed including a large room with both a lounge and bedroom area, a kitchen with shower and western toilet as well as outdoor cooking facilities and a fridge. We were even met the very next morning by someone who would guide us to the school we would be supporting.
A turn for the worse
We waited by the side of the road not far from our accommodation as Tro-Tro after Tro-Tro (the local form of transport), passed us by. Eventually we found one with space and even though it was cheap (30p) it took forever to get to the interchange. The interchange itself was essentially a sea of Tro-Tros and working out which one you would need to get seemed like an impossible task. After being pointed backwards and forwards we boarded our second Tro-Tro of the morning. We were ready to go but unfortunately until all of the seats were full, we weren’t going anywhere. Meanwhile, hawkers would come to try to sell their wares of mints, chewing gum, food, drink or handkerchiefs!! We stuck out but everyone was very friendly and eventually we were on our way. Constantly stopping for people to get on and off or to avoid accidents due to crazy driving and poorly maintained roads, I thought we would never get there. Even when our guide signalled for us to leave the bus, it was a further 20 minute walk through a maze of village dirt tracks, stepping over rubbish that had been discarded, before we arrived. This was two and a half hours after we had left the house and not a commute I was keen to repeat. However, I reassured myself that it was only the first day and delays were to be expected.
The school day was unfortunately not much better. Teachers (including the Headteacher) had recently walked out and so classes had been left unattended. Wanting to help as much as possible we took a class each. There were no resources in the classroom other than the odd teacher book, which may or may not be for the year sitting before us, as well as some chalk and a board. However, there were resources in the teacher’s staff room but these were covered in dust and seem to have been donated by previous volunteers but never used. This was certainly nothing like the picture that had been painted for us by our host.
Children, although in uniform, had little else. Some were equipped with pens and pencils, a few even had exercise books to write in but almost none had a textbook. All students were required to purchase such materials but none looked like they had the money to do so now or in the immediate future. As we struggled on with teaching when we hadn’t been told what they knew or what they needed to know, it became apparent that rote learning was the primary teaching methodology. This did not come as much of a surprise as we had seen this in Africa and other countries in the developing world before. It did mean, however, that children appeared smarter than they were. Many were unable to read or write well enough to access the material. Yet still they were being forced to cover subjects they had no resources for such as ICT when the school didn’t even have electricity, let alone computers.
The biggest plus of the day was the free lunch as there hadn’t appeared to be anywhere to buy food by our accommodation. It was then a long, slow, humid afternoon until the end of the school day. Not wanting us to get lost the teacher who had brought us to Kumasi the day before offered to help us get home. She seemed very unsure of how this would be achieved as the transport did not just run in the opposite direction to that which we had come in the morning. She therefore decided we would go via the centre. This proved to be another excruciatingly slow journey and due to a traffic jam only beaten in size by one I had once watched on Top Gear, meant we had to get off early and walk through the market. Kejetia market is regarded as the largest in Western Africa. There was nowhere to walk other than to wind between the various stalls, ducking and diving as locals charged through with all of manner of objects balanced upon their heads. It was clear that the teacher we were with had no idea where our Tro-Tro was to take us home and so we asked driver after driver until half an hour later we were sitting on our fourth Tro-Tro of the day.
Returning home after 5 hours spent commuting, it was now getting dark. There seemed to be nowhere to buy food and our teacher seemed unsure that there ever would be. We therefore returned empty handed. After explaining all of this to our host, the man who looked after the house cooked a small plate of food for us. We decided that as tomorrow was Friday we would give it another go. However, since the number of hours spent getting to the project was nearly more than the advertised total volunteering hours and the fact the school was not in need of what we had come to do that we may have to cut our losses and move on.
A possible solution
After it became clear that this was not a sustainable set up for us we spoke with our host who finally explained that previous volunteers had had to pay for taxis to arrive to and from school each day. This would however push us over our allocated budget as had we known we would not have chosen this opportunity in the first place. He offered us the solution of moving to the school site itself. Yet with no running water, no electricity, no doors or windows, no toilet or shower facilities and just as isolated if not more so than where we were – we declined. We therefore felt we had no choice but to leave after less than 72 hours!
Luckily we didn’t arrive in Ghana without a plan B and so we embarked on a long journey across Kumasi to be reunited with a good friend we volunteered with in South Africa. She is here volunteering too and lives with a group of people from the UK/USA. We’ll give ourselves a few days to settle in and then we will seek volunteering opportunities in a nearby school.
If you want to see how we get on with volunteering in Ghana and whether we decide to give Workaway another chance then why not sign up for updates? Not only are we hoping to explore Ghana but we are also heading into neighbouring Togo and Benin. If you have any ideas on what we should see/do or knowledge of volunteering opportunities then please get in touch.