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Summer Volunteering Teaching Technology in Ghana

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? 

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