the value of volunteer appearances

KUMASI, Ghana There are four types of oburonis, or foreigners, to be found in West Africa. The most established are the expatriates, folks from…


There are four types of oburonis, or foreigners, to be found in West Africa.

The most established are the expatriates, folks from abroad who have made Africa their home for whatever reasons.

The most transient are the businessmen briefly checking in on their interests. They don’t stay; they employ expats to stay for them.

Then there are the travellers like me, passing through more or less on a whim to learn a little bit about African life.

The fourth group — volunteers — seems most abundant.

You see volunteers often in pairs or packs, twentysomethings mostly from Canada, the US and the UK roaming main streets in T-shirts and shorts, typically taking a semester off from school to learn something of the developing world through the filtre of a non-governmental organization.

There’s something mildly contemptible about this approach.

I don’t know if it’s the bubble of cultural familiarity volunteers wrap themselves in from the moment they arrive, or the implied condescension that Africa needs ‘saving,’ or the dubious religious background of so many NGOs, or the suggestion that visiting an exotic place and people out of sheer hedonic curiosity, as I’m doing, is bad.

Likely my bemused contempt is based on a combination of these factors.

But it loses sight of what volunteers come here to do.

“Sales are not really in my heart,” said Autumn Felicia LaPointe, a 28-year-old Canadian management student from Edmonton who needed some international experience to continue her more worthwhile work volunteering with the Red Cross.

So LaPointe paid Volunteer Abroad, an NGO that connects volunteers to opportunities in the developing world, $2,500 for eight weeks of room and board and a connection with the African Hope Foundation of Ghana.

The foundation educates about HIV/AIDS, cares for orphans of its victims and offers sex trade workers opportunities to change the direction of their lives.

Between two and five per cent of Ghana’s 21 million people are thought to be infected with HIV, according to 2003 statistics from the World Health Organization.

Ghana’s numbers are lower than surrounding West African nations but just as unreliable because the negative social stigma associated with AIDS is so powerful many Ghanaians refuse to be tested, or else hide their positive result.

The money LaPointe paid for the opportunity to help fight the disease and its stigma was “totally worth it.

“I felt safe coming here,” she said. “If I have any problems or security concerns (Volunteer Abroad) are who I would contact.”

But what if the biggest problem is a sense that nothing’s happening?

Ghanaians, and presumably most Africans, practise a different kind of work ethic, one that is much less results-focused and time sensitive.

Oburoni volunteers trying to participate in such a culture routinely shake their heads with wry grins as they let go of expectations.

“One day I feel like I’m being effective,” said LaPointe. “And one day I wonder what I did today.”

The work will continue with or without benevolent foreigners.

But the mere presence of oburoni volunteers helps Ghanaian NGOs expedite things.

“The Ghanaians think oburoni is always right,” explained Agnes Afua Opoku, executive director of the African Hope Foundation of Ghana.

When Opoku lectures on the perils of HIV and the importance of condoms her efforts sometimes fall on deaf ears. So she gets volunteers like LaPointe to do the talking.

“Obibini (African) is never right, obibini doesn’t know anything,”

Opoku said, chuckling at her own culture’s fallacy because she’s the one who trains the oborunis who seem to know so much.

The same self-critical standard may not apply elsewhere in West Africa, but because of its relative political and economic stability Ghana leads as a destination for NGOs and foreign aid.

For instance, the Canadian International Development Agency donated $67.4 million to Ghana during 2004-05, according to Kate Leyenaar, an international development student who recently spent nine months studying NGOs in Ghana.

“I’d say 200-plus NGOs are in Kumasi alone, although some only exist on paper,” said Leyenaar, who estimated between 900 and 1,500 NGOs operating across the country.

Consequently, there is a new saying that one way to get rich in Ghana is to start an NGO.

“It may be true that some do that,” said Opoku.

But there’s no money in legitimate non-profit NGOs, she said.

By many accounts Opoku works round the clock and routinely goes out of pocket to keep the foundation afloat.

“When volunteers are with me I like that. They make my work effective.”

In exchange oburoni volunteers get all the experiences of us regular travellers — the food, the language, the general monotonous chaos — but also that essential feeling of helping that they crave.

“I think of the kids in the orphanage,” said LaPointe.

“If I made one of them smile for 10 minutes and they remember that down the road in spite of all the crap they see every day, that makes it worth it.”

And if more Africans use condoms because an oburoni told them to, well, mission accomplished.

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.