Ghana students returning from rain forest planting.

Ghana students returning from rain forest planting.

TeachingTraveling.com: Welcome, Kim! Tell us about yourself.

Kim: My name is Kim Zimmer and I’m a 31 year old technology teacher at an elementary school in Glenview, IL.

My formative years of middle and high school were spent in the Chicagoland area, but I decided to go against the grain and travel cross country to attend the University of Oregon for college. My years as a Duck were spent as a journalism student studying Electronic Media and I was fortunate enough to travel abroad twice in college and this definitely had an impact on my future travels.

My first study abroad took me to New Zealand and Australia through The Pacific Challenge program and my senior year I studied Media in Ghana through the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. After living in Seattle for two years and working in broadcast post graduation, I decided to come back home Chicago to pursue a degree in Education Technology which would allow me to travel during the summers and combine my passions for technology, multimedia and education.

TT: Fantastic! Tell us about a recent and fabulous travel experience.

Kim and an elephant at Mole National Park!

Kim and an elephant at Mole National Park!

K: Last summer I went back to the place that had a major impact on me in 2002, Ghana West Africa. Spending the final two months of my senior year of college in Ghana had exposed me to culture, cuisine, climate and customs so different from my own and I soaked up every minute that I spent in Accra and the other cities and villages we traveled to on the weekends. As I boarded the plane to come home in 2002, I made a promise to return by the age of 30.

Last summer I returned to volunteer at a school called Esaase (eh saaa see) Christian School and Orphanage (ECSO). I taught computers to K-8 students in their small and somewhat functional computer lab, helped with administrative tasks around the school, taught in various classrooms, played with the children and I ran the computer lab at night so students who lived at the school could have extra enrichment time. I spent a total of five weeks last summer in Esaase which is a small village outside of Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana.

I’m glad that I decided to spread my wings and try living in a new region of Ghana. Kumasi is a gorgeous city with many modern conveniences. I treated myself to a weekly visit to Kumasi where I picked up some snacks at the grocery store, checked email, uploaded photos, posted to my blog and even ate pizza. The village of Esaase where I spent most of my days is just 35 minutes outside of the city, a quick tro tro ride away depending on traffic. It is the perfect place to experience rural village life and not feel so far removed a city. The hospitality of my host family, the organization of the volunteer experience and the hundreds of smiling faces that greeted me every morning was life changing.

Getting lunch ready at ECSO. Yum!

Getting lunch ready at ECSO. Yum!

TT: Wonderful. As someone who spent three lovely months volunteer teaching in Ghana, your tale is bringing back many happy memories. How did you find this travel opportunity?

K: I spent a lot of time scouring the web for an affordable volunteer opportunity that would enable me to work with computers and kids while having some flexibility for traveling during the weekends. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Akwaaba Esaase organization’s website which gave a very detailed description of the school climate, the volunteer experience and the price to volunteer was very clearly stated on their website. The 350 Euro for one month including room and meals could not be beat so I decided to send an inquiry and within weeks, had my entire trip planned. I had kept in close contact with with a drum maker who I had met in 2002 and he agreed to help get me from the airport in Accra to my destination in Kumasi because it did involve some overland travel. Everything worked out beautifully and I arrived at the school to find that a girl from Germany was also starting her volunteer experience the same day as me. We still keep in touch and discuss weekly how much we miss Ghana. Both of us are planning to go back together next summer in 2012.

The Computer Lab at ESCO in Ghana.

The Computer Lab at ESCO in Ghana.

TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?

K: In order to fund my trip, I began putting aside money about one year in advance. Finding a more affordable volunteer opportunity that included room and board allowed me to have some reserves for travel on the weekends.

TT: Sweet. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

K: I’m not sure a day goes by in Ghana that is not impactful, interesting or amusing in some way. One of my first experiences at ECSO was hiking with 150 students and a group of teachers to the Owabi Wildlife Sanctuary about two miles from the school to plant seedlings along the sanctuary trails and borders in an attempt stop poachers from clear cutting on the land and polluting the local water supply. The morning after arrived, I was completely shocked to see hundreds of children carrying machetes to school. At that point I had no idea what they were going to use them for, and the events of the day had not been clearly explained to me. This is not atypical in Ghana-Often times important details are left out and the lack of structure, especially during the school day can be rather frustrating for an American teacher. I had overheard “going to the rainforest” at one point was told by a few of the teachers to ditch the shorts and sandals for pants and tennis shoes.

Students planting trees in the rainforest.

Students planting trees in the rainforest.

After some further questioning, I realized that we were going to use the machetes to dig up holes to plant seedlings in the rainforest. They were actually being incredibly resourceful and used their machetes (typically used to cut the grass) to accomplish more work in less time. That day the students planted over 2,000 seedlings in the forest in just under three hours. This initiative that the school was participating in had gained attention from local media outlets and the head master of the school was incredibly passionate his mission to teach the students conservation and the importance of protecting the natural environment around the village. We revisited the rainforest to plant a total of three times during my stay at ECSO and we all felt an incredible sense of accomplishment and students certainly felt ownership in their efforts to help the local environment.

TT: Amazing. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?

K: My travels have impacted my teaching in a number of ways. My experience helped me educate my students to not generalize the entire continent of “Africa” as safari animals and poverty which is what many of their perceptions are unfortunately. Seeing Ghana from my perspective exposed students from our suburban community to a place where children go to school, do their homework, live in communities not unlike their own, help around the house, play soccer, go to church and spend time with their families. Since I’ve returned, our third graders and sixth graders have done a collaborative story writing project together and sent their stories to Ghana through Kids to Kids international. Having a teacher on hand who can speak first hand about life in Ghana and answer questions helped the students connect with the place where they were sending their books. I am looking forward to returning next summer and ideally bringing along some of my colleagues to enhance our social studies curriculum and make more connections with more schools in Ghana to conduct pen pal exchanges.

The Tro Tro (shared van transport) Station in Kumasi.

The Tro Tro (shared van transport) Station in Kumasi.

TT: Love it. How have your travels impacted you as a person?

K: My time in Ghana helped me realize that traveling alone can be incredibly rewarding. Until this point I had always traveled with friends or on an organized program. When you arrive in a new place that is so different from your own and you are on your own, it seems to take much less time to adjust. Maybe that is because you really have no one to complain to! I realized that I am much more adaptable that I give myself credit for and realized how little I actually need to live comfortably. I have a much greater appreciation for everyday luxuries that we take for granted – a shower with hot running water (I used a cup and bucket of cold water each morning to bathe), washing machine, electricity (rolling blackouts happened every day), reliable computers and technology infrastructure, modern teaching tools, ease of transportation, paved roads, and the variety of foods and goods available.

Making delicious fufu to eat.

Making delicious fufu to eat.

At the same time, I miss the simple life. I learned to go with the flow and not be disappointed when things do not work out exactly as planned. One of the most common things that travelers joke about in Ghana is “Ghana time”. This is the pace at which things move and generally speaking, it is much slower than the pace at which we move. My patience was tested time and time again and after experiencing this for over a month I have exhibited much more patience in my everyday life.

TT: Absolutely. What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?

K: The first thing to do is contact your doctor and discuss your plans for travel. Be sure you are in good health and discuss any necessary vaccinations or prophylaxis you will need for your trip. Be sure your passport is up to date and check the website of the country you plan to visit for Visa information. Give yourself at least one month to work out the Visa process. Putting this off means you will have to pay extra fees to expedite the processing. I found all of the information I needed for my trip using Google search and booked my plane ticket on Vayama.com. The Lonely Planet’s Travel forums are a great resource to connect with other travelers and ask questions. Buy a good travel book to keep with you while you travel and I also found that having a small netbook computer allowed me to reflect on my travels throughout the entire experience. One of the quotes that helped me throughout my travels: “Stop worrying about the potholes in the road (this is especially applicable in Ghana) and celebrate the journey!”

TT: Thanks so much for this inspirational interview, Kim. Readers, what questions or comments do you have? To learn more about volunteering at ECSO or to sponsor a student, please visit: http://akwaaba-esaase.org/

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Posted by Lillie

Lillie started TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share the infinite ways to combine education and world exploration. Lillie has been a Boston teacher since 2003, and chronicles her own travels at AroundTheWorldL.com.

7 Comments

  1. Hi Kim

    I’m an Australian who is interested in volunteering at the Esaase Christian School and Orphanage. Thank you for your blog, we haven’t really been able to find any other details of other past volunteers experiences so this is very useful for us. Will you go back to ESCO? Are there any other insights that you can share with some potential volunteers? We have found Mr Boateng very easy-going so far – he’s pretty much told us to come over whenever we are free!

    Any further info you can provide would be fantastic.

    Reply

    1. Hi Amanda,

      I’m so glad to hear that you might be volunteering at ECSO! Yes, I would definitely go back. It was a great experience. Mr. Boateng is very mellow, easy going and accommodating. He is always up for volunteers and is great about making sure you have three meals a day and anything else you need. Mr. Boateng was great about picking me up at the bus station in Kumasi when I arrived (I did buy a cell phone in Accra so I could communicate with him and my family back home because the only other option is going to Kumasi. If you have a phone with a SIM card, I believe you can just buy a MTN SIM card when you are there). It was really nice having a phone and you can buy phone credits just about anywhere.

      The only thing about this experience that might be surprising is that you really have to make it your own. The teachers are very receptive to having volunteers around and everyone is very welcoming to the volunteers, but there is no structure to the experience, and there is a lot of down time during the school day and when school dismisses. So the days can be long unless you jump in and find a niche. You might find yourself feeling like you aren’t making an impact but playing with the kids, helping out in the computer lab and helping with homework/lessons/cleaning/cooking are more appreciated than you know!

      Your experience might be different because I stayed at the school (which is probably still an option) due to the fact that a lot of ex volunteers were in town for a volunteer celebration so they were staying in the volunteer quarters. The volunteer quarters at Mr. Boateng’s house are great so if you can stay there, I would recommend it…just a short walk to the school. Be sure to get out of the school area and walk to the town of Esaase. My daily routine was to go to town with some of other volunteers or kids and buy a cold soda every day from the one person with a refrigerator in town because it’s HOT! If you are in Esaase, it’s a very rural (but beautiful) town with easy access to a nature preserve and the city of Kumasi for shopping, sightseeing and internet cafes. (On a tro tro it takes about 40 minutes, costs next to nothing and is always an adventure!). I used to go about twice a week just do write a blog post, eat dinner at Vic Baboo’s Cafe and walk around.

      I know that they have recently built two new schools since I was there – a vocational school for the older kids to learn different trades and another primary school (which is apparently where the family who I stayed with lives now) to accommodate kids who had to travel so far by bus. I would ask if he plans to have you in Esaase or another school and if you prefer being with older students, maybe they are taking volunteers the vocational school?

      If you have any more logistical questions, you can find me on Twitter @MacTeacher – Feel free to send me a direct message with your contact info and we can chat more. I’d rather not give out my email address in this comment thread 😉

      I’m also a fan of ECSO on Facebook so you can connect with me and more volunteers through there and ask any questions…

      Hope this helps!
      Kim

      Reply

      1. Wow – thank you so much for you advice! I’ve joined the Facebook group and will definitely get in contact in the next few months if I’ve got more questions. Thanks again!!

        Reply

  2. This is nice. I hope to read about the outcomes. By the way, could you think of doing something similar in Haiti next? Jeep up the great work.

    Reply

  3. This article is so inspiring. I love that you are so passionate about education that you sacrificed so much to go and provide so much help. Your story will inspire others to do something and that is wonderful. I work for a nonprofit in Africa that provides education to children in Africa who do not have the opportunity. Education is so crucial to improving the lives of this great people. I have so much hope for the future in Africa.

    Reply

    1. Hi Amy,
      Thanks for the comment! I too have so much hope for the future of Africa. Ghana is such an inspiring place too and it amazed me how much the families that I worked with valued education. The non-profit that I volunteered with just built a new elementary school and a vocational high school so I am excited to go back and see what they have accomplished in just two years. Which non-profit do you work for? If you are ever looking for classes of students in the U.S. to send letters, stories, or any other type of exchanges, let me know!

      Reply

  4. Love this post! Kim I can relate to you in so many ways (and we both live in Illinois). I am currently living in Atonsu (just south of Kumasi) and working with an NGO here. I’ve been here for one month and am saying for two more months. I love your thoughts on “Ghana time” because it’s so true, ghanians run on their own time. I would love to hear more about your studies with Media in Ghana. I myself am a film student so learning about media in other countries is very interesting! Overall love the piece, reminds me of my everyday life here. I will definitely miss Ghana when I leave!

    Reply

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