dream chasers | no. 1

I absolutely love blogs and podcasts that feature inspiring ladies living their lives, finding their way and doing the things they’re passionate about – The EverygirlJess Lively, etc. But I’m also constantly inspired by so many ladies that I know in real life, so I knew I wanted to start a series on the blog to feature some of their stories. I hope you enjoy it!

First up is Emily, a friend and former colleague of mine who recently took a major leap of faith and went to volunteer in Africa, fulfilling a longtime goal of hers. When she was gone, I followed her blog religiously – she had some experiences for the record books. She is an awesome (and hilarious) writer so you should definitely check out her blog for more. But first, I’m so excited to share Emily’s adventure with you! 

 

Let’s start at the beginning! How did you end up in Ghana?

I started researching public health-related volunteer opportunities across Africa and Asia. I wanted to work with a grassroots foundation instead of one headed up by an American staff. The director of Cheerful Hearts Foundation (CHF) was the first to respond and I decided the organization was a good fit for my goals and committed to volunteering with them.

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Give us a little overview of your time there and the amazing projects you worked on. I’m so inspired by the way you went above and beyond your original assignment – you saw a need and found a way to meet it.

When I arrived, another volunteer, Claire, and I were assigned a project that involved going to a nearby village to interview the residents about their knowledge of Tuberculosis (TB). The data we collected would be submitted to Ghana Health Services to assess local health awareness. We would also give educational talks in nearby schools, and spend two mornings per week assisting in the Child and Family Health unit of the local health clinic.

One of the questions we asked in our TB interviews was “Would you attend a free TB screening if it was held in your community?” The question was hypothetical, but the answer was almost unanimously “yes.” Claire and I decided to research how we could make the screening a reality. We met with local health officers, community leaders, and other NGO’s to plan details. We learned that Hepatitis B was an equally (if not more) urgent health issue in the area and decided to plan screening sessions for both TB and Hep B.

The Ghanaian government recently extended free Tuberculosis treatment across the country so our TB work was essentially cost-free. However, Hepatitis B vaccines and medication are costly, so we created a fundraising webpage which we marketed on social media to gain support from friends and family back home. The majority of my 9-week stay in Ghana focused on planning these two initiatives.

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What did a typical day look like for you?

I woke up around 5:30 am to roosters crowing and the Muslim prayers being broadcast across the town. Some days I would go for a short run early to try to beat the heat (unsuccessfully – the heat always wins in Africa!) {Editor’s note: One of my favorite posts on Emily’s blog mentions her morning runs – including how the locals reacted, and the day she was bullied into running harder by a little girl.} 

Then I’d draw water from the well for a quick bucket shower, sometimes make a cup of instant coffee and have oatmeal or fruit and walk to work. We’d usually work until 4 or 5 pm either doing interviews, giving school talks, or meeting about the screenings. Lunch was purchased from street vendors for 1-5 cedes, which is about US $2 maximum. I’d head home to eat dinner with my host around 6, take another bucket shower (the heat!), and read on my Kindle until bedtime around 8:30 or 9.

I imagine the culture shock was pretty intense. What were some of the hardest adjustments? The easiest?

There were almost no “obrunis” (white people) in the city so we would get yelled at constantly. It wasn’t usually meant in a mean way but Ghanaians are very straightforward about making comments that would be considered rude in the US. It was really draining to be constantly the object on display! Men would call out “white lady I love you!” or “marry me obruni!” I don’t rack up marriage proposals quite this often in Seattle, so they were a strange thing to adjust to.

I don’t know if there were any “easy” adjustments… I did appreciate the early bedtime though. I was always exhausted at the end of a long hot day.

What’s your overall favorite moment or memory from your trip?

The first day of our TB screening it poured rain. Remember this is Africa… It never pours. So this was of course just our luck. Nonetheless, we had about 80 people show up to be educated about and screened for Tuberculosis. The first person to arrive was a 91-year-old woman who hobbled up the muddy road to get a seat an hour before we were set to start. It was really overwhelming to see how our work really affected people who have never given second thought to serious health issues and how they were excited to learn about and prevent these issues.

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How about the craziest or funniest memory from your trip?

I wrote a blog entry about being on a tro-tro, or minibus, with an evangelical preacher on it. He read from the Bible, yelled his message with shaking eyes and a frothing mouth, and literally exorcised the demons from another passenger. The weirdest part was that everyone on the tro-tro was really into it. I imagined such a scene happening on my morning bus ride from home to work… and the responses it would draw from crabby commuting Seattleites. It was absolutely bizarre.

What did you learn about yourself through this experience? 

It sounds corny but I learned that I’m way stronger than I knew. There were so many tough things to adjust to – extreme heat, cockroaches in my bedroom, constant sickness, bathing out of a bucket, using a latrine; not to mention language and cultural barriers – and in the first week or two I truly doubted if I would last two and a half months. I’m so happy and proud to say that I did, and know I can handle just about any curveball life throws me from here on out.

Now that you’ve settled back in to life in America, are there things you miss about Ghana? Were you surprised to find yourself missing these things?

I miss the people. And I worked with some really great volunteers from all over the world and still keep in touch with many. I also miss roasted plantains (yum!!!) and being able to buy huge avocados or whole pineapples for the equivalent of about 30 cents. The beaches we visited on the weekends also weren’t half bad and got a little more sun than Seattle does.

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What advice would you give someone who is interested in volunteering abroad, or just in general taking a big leap of faith in any area of life?

If you’re thinking about traveling or making a change… the only way to do it is to DO IT. A number of people said to me “you’re so lucky to be able to do what you’re doing.” Luck, however, had nothing to do with it. I quit my job and used up most of my savings and missed out on many occasions that happened at home while I was gone. But these were risks I was willing to take so I could never look back and regret not taking this leap. Anyone can do it… it’s just a matter of how much you are willing to risk and the amount of effort you are willing to put forth.

A few final fun questions…

What food from home did you miss the most?

Vegetables. There was plenty of fruit but you had to work to find anything green! Also, since refrigeration is basically nonexistent,  there wasn’t any dairy other than shelf-stable milk and processed “cheese” product. I had periodic cravings for one of my favorite Seattle discoveries: Elenos Greek Yogurt (sold at Pike Place Market).

On your blog you mention your “seamstress” and in some pictures you’re rocking some amazing patterned skirts and dresses. So awesome! Have you been wearing them around Seattle?

Yes! It was really fun to pick out fabric from the markets and have seamstresses create unique custom clothing. I had one make me a romper — she was confused by it (“shorts and blouse in one?”) but it turned out awesome. I’ve worn one of the shift dresses a few times in Seattle and received many compliments!

If you could go anywhere else in the world right now, where would you go??

Thailand. Based almost entirely off your honeymoon experience 🙂

Your words to live by?

“Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This scripture verse (1 Thessalonians 5:16) became my mantra when I was frustrated or felt like giving up. It still is! My return to Seattle has been a little shaky with looking for a new job, sorting out my housing situation, and returning to normalcy in my social life. It’s a perfect reminder that there is always something to be thankful for and to keep a positive outlook in all situations, good or bad.

Thanks so much to Emily for being the first feature in this series! I hope her story was as inspiring (and entertaining!) for you as it was for me. If you’d like to ready more about Emily’s trip, you can visit her blog: getitghana.blogspot.com

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