Step out of your comfort zone, they say, this is where the magic happens.
In February 2013 I entered a plane from Frankfurt to Accra, Ghana. I was about to start a 6 weeks volunteering internship at the NGO Plight of the Child International (POCI) in Ofoase, a rural area more or less near Kumasi. I was in the last year of my master degree, had already some kind of experience and thought this would be a nice and easy thing to do. I had no idea that this trip would change my life forever.
This experience changed my life. It changed how I see the world, how I see myself in the world and what I want to do with my life.
My main motivation to go for this volunteering opportunity was to experience a totally different culture in a totally different environment and I had this thought of making a positive impact on kids in need, so I picked this education-project. But to be honest, I doubt that the impact I mad was that big. What happened in the end was that Ghana and those kids had an incredibly powerful impact on me. It was a starting point of a long introspective confusion leading into the biggest personal transformation I went through by then.
I was supposed to be allocated to a school class and give 2–3 lessons per week. But when I arrived they told me that things changed. Other interns did the same job before, but as the kids didn’t understood english that well, the teachers had to repeat the whole lessons afterwards in their local language, twi. The new plan was to get an agreement with the education office that each school class would come once a week to the community library the NGO built, where we interns would teach them additional english, math and social science based on a self created curriculum.
The village where we lived was very small, so we had to walk every day in the morning and evening around 30 minutes from our house to the library in Ofoase. Daniela was one of the kids that came to the library nearly every day. We played games, solved riddles and had a lot of fun. She loved to play the cat, which was actually a puzzle of a leopard, but that didn’t matter. She was very smart and had a lot of energy. I am grateful to have my favourite memory captured in a 1 minute video, where we are playing a Ghanaian kids game.
But on some days she was not coming to the library. By that time I didn’t even thought about why, till one day on the way home I saw one of the places where palm nut oil was produced. Palm nut oil was the main key for Malaysia’s economy over the past years to grow massively and Ghana has a fitting environment to copy that. A sad side effect is that the way how it is produced is most of the time neither healthy for the environment nor for the people working on it. But, who am I to judge. If I am living from day to day and there is an opportunity to feed myself and my family, I would most probably take it too. There is no long-term perspective if you face short term challenges like many people do here.
That day I saw a group of kids next to the street where the oil was produced. It looked like they helped collecting and picking the small nuts out of the shrub head and Daniela was one of them. The moment she saw me she even posed for a picture and smiled. I smiled back, but inside my heart was breaking the exact same moment.
I felt horrible. Thoughts in my head went crazy. I started questioning everything. Why was she not in school that day? Why was she working? How might she be living with her family? Do they have enough money to live and eat? Are they suffering from hunger? How is that affecting her education? Why am I born in Germany living such a privileged life? I literally won the lottery being born and grown up where and how I did. Why not her? Who would I be today if I would have been born here? Who would she be if she would have been born in Germany?
I wanted to do something, but I felt completely powerless.
Thoughts and questions have been running through my head ongoing for the next 6–8 weeks, even after I was back. I started to be very quiet and introvert during that time. I tried to make sense out of all, but couldn’t find a way. There must be something I can do, but I always came back to how big and complex the issue actually is. Reducing inequality is where it all starts and education is one of the areas with huge inequalities around the globe and within countries and territories. But even if I focus only on education in places like Ghana, I pretty fast realise how complex this issue is interconnected with hunger and poverty, so that tackling only one of them seems like not efficient and sustainable at all. This means a complex and comprehensive solution is needed, which is where my feeling of being powerless comes back that even turned into feeling guilty for how privileged I actually am.
Looking back now I can say, I was lost in one of the most beautiful confusions life gave me so far. This inner and outer journey I went through changed how I see the world. It changed how I see myself in the world and what I want to do with my life. It opened my eyes to look beyond the city where I grew up and see the world with all its beauty, but also all its mistakes. It made me realise that I don’t want to live a meaningless life and that already the thought of contributing to something good makes me feel incredibly excited and happy.
With privilege comes responsibility.
I am privileged because of where I am born and how I grew up. In my opinion this comes with a huge responsibility. A responsibility to contribute to equality and to support people that have not been as lucky as I have been. By that time I didn’t had the answer what exactly I want to dedicate my life to, but I understood already that only by putting myself in the right environment, I would be able to continue exploring this thought. This made me join the national executive board of an NGO called AIESEC in Germany, afterwards move to Nicaragua for one year to build up this youth organisation there and to now work in its global executive board in Rotterdam.
Step out of your comfort zone, this is where the magic happens.
I would not be where I am now, without this experience in Ghana and I am forever grateful for this. I am excited to see where all this will lead me to.