A Humanitas volunteer, a camera and a memorable trip to the Humanitas School in Ghana

I’ve been back less than a week and I’m relishing spending time with my family who I missed so much, I can’t describe how much it hurt. I now have a renewed appreciation for my life, the place where I live and the people around me. But as I look over my photos from the village of Ayensuako I can’t help feel that a little piece of my heart is still there.

I’d never been to Africa, even though as a young teenager it was high up on my hit list of travel destinations. I remember looking through copies of The National Geographic and the Sunday supplements yearning to take my camera and capture my own images of the stunning people and places there. I had aspirations of becoming a photojournalist but I didn’t believe I would be able to cope with the emotional challenge of encountering starving children, destitute communities and displaced people escaping war and famine; as I had seen in the media many times growing up in the 80’s. In my 20’s I did however travel to other countries as a tourist, spending time in India, Mexico and South East Asia. I had youth and invincibility on my side. I had no family of my own and no responsibilities, care free and able to go anywhere without a second thought. But somehow I didn’t manage to get to Africa before my time and money ran out.

So, twenty years later when Humanitas Charity offered me the opportunity to be part of a school building project in rural Ghana I jumped at the chance. I envisaged the images I would capture whilst I was there and thought about the impact I could have on the children's experience of studying at school, by volunteering my time to improve the condition of the classrooms. I look at my own children aged 9 and 11 and see how lucky they are to have schooling handed to them on a plate. As a nation we may moan and protest about government cuts, and I do believe we need to keep up the fight for a better future for our children, but really my kids have more than they need. Bringing up my family in the UK means my kids have access to a free education of a very high standard, which gives them the opportunity to make choices later in their lives. Not all children have this privilege. Many have very little or no schooling and families struggle to feed their children, sometimes sending them to work at a very young age in dangerous and underpaid conditions believing that it offers a better chance for them than living in poverty at home. These are the challenges facing thousands of families living in rural Ghana. Humanitas Charity works alongside these honest, hardworking and desperately poor people to give them the chance of a better life.

When I first arrived in the village of Ayensuako in the central region of Ghana I felt overwhelmed. Taken aback by the beautiful people and delightful smiling children all greeting me with open arms and warm welcomes. I was also shocked by the heat and the dust and how simply the people were living. Many in mud clad huts barely bigger than your average garden shed, with an average of 5 or 6 children in each family. Most of the community’s daily life is spent outdoors, under shelter or in doorways, sleeping, cooking, working and playing in the sweaty heat. Everyday I was amazed by how much weight was carried on even the smallest of heads, produce expertly balanced and transported several kilometres down dusty and uneven roads. The kids just seemed so much more independent and streetwise than mine. I was surprised to see a 9 year old casually peeling an orange with a razor blade and a boy, only a year older than my own son, nimbly climbing a 50ft coconut tree with a 2ft machete in his back pocket. No ropes, no safety net. He told me his first time up such a tree was just 2 years ago but some boys can start as early as 8 years old. I was slightly concerned to see a neighbouring boy playing with a huge and very rusty rattrap whilst others were more joyfully pushing along old cycle wheels and kicking footballs made from old plastic bags knotted up together.

Amongst all the endearing charm and simple customs of the community, there were parts of the experience that were difficult for me to get accustomed to. The unbearable sweaty heat, the smell of the village dump by the river and the flies and other equally annoying bugs that hovered around waiting for their share of the food on my plate.  I’m not sure if there were more goats or chickens living in the village but they all ran wild, plucking off discarded food remnants and other unwanted leftovers.  Between them and the lizards they thankfully kept the population of mosquitos and other bugs to a minimum. Probably the hardest thing I had to get used to was the noise. Vehicles speeding along the road, people shouting so harshly at each other that I’d wrongly think that at any moment blood would be spilled. However, most of the noise came from the local loudspeaker announcements above my head that would start from 4.30am - before the first cockerel had a chance to sound his own alarm! The drone of voices coming from the speaker were mostly advertisements and preaching but they were so loud and seemingly aggressive; I was glad I couldn’t understand the language. This would stop shortly after 9am but would start again for the early evening and could go on until after 9pm. I found myself relieved to have another power cut, the electric fans would stop but at least I got a bit of peace.

The first day I trekked up to the school grounds to start painting I thought I couldn’t breathe and the sweat was dripping off me in buckets. I was thinking to myself, ‘how could I manage doing a physical task without passing out?’ I continually doused myself with water and progress was slow, but after a couple of days I became acclimatised to the heat and the job got easier. Every now and then I got a whiff of myself but ploughed on all the same. In under a week I’d completed the second coat of paint and I was ready to get creative with some murals. In between painting I’d pull out a book that my own kids had sent with me to give to the school and I read to small groups of children whose English was pretty good.  But I soon realised they didn’t really get the story lines and had no understanding of the objects, places or characters in the books so it was confusing for them. I decided to write my own story that they could relate to more easily and I called it Anna’s Seed. It tells the story of a girl that discovered that it is better to learn how to feed yourself than to rely on others for handouts. They really understood the story well, even without the images of a picture book. The next day I decided to paint my last mural which would illustrate the story and the kids helped by painting the seedlings that Anna grew.

On my last afternoon at the school the sky filled with dark clouds and the heavens opened. A torrential thunderstorm fell around us, hammering down on the school’s tin roof. I learned that there’s only one thing to do in a tropical storm, get the drums out and make as much noise as possible.  And for those who didn’t want to play, they used their incredible ability to fall asleep through anything!

I was sad to leave Ayensuako. The community is strong and has a huge heart full of goodness. I have been greeted and welcomed with warmth and affection from the poorest of widowed mothers to the noble chief of the area who patiently answered my ignorant questions. I will miss the children of Ayensuako, especially Gladys and Ivans and their older siblings who were living next door to where I stayed. They, along with the other children of the village made the whole experience a joy; sharing stories with them, teaching them new words and how to draw cats and paint walls. I was very conscious at first not to take photos without asking and didn’t want to act without respect for the privacy of the community, but I soon learned that I couldn’t take a serious photo without 20 kids and grown ups jumping into the shot. I was photo bombed nearly every time so I had to be quick. The villagers enjoyed watching me walk up to the school to paint and when I walked around the village taking photos they would call out ‘abruni’ - an endearing term for a white man. I could hear it being called to me from all corners of the village and each time I arrived at the school my new friends would all be there to greet me and pose for the next photo. Now that I’m back in my hometown here in Hitchin there’s definitely something missing as I walk down the street. Thank you to the people of Ayensuako for making me feel part of your community and for reminding me that true happiness starts with a smile.