Coming to Africa was a huge step for me. Before this I had been out of the country only once when I went to Mexico. While in Mexico I spent my days in a resort and never really saw what the country was like, so being in Ghana has been a very intense experience. When I first arrived I was terrified to do anything because it was so different than at home. The longer I stay the more I realize how grateful I am that I am here with CFHI. It makes the hardships much less difficult and gives us a place to feel 100% safe. There have been a few times where I have been so uncomfortable that I wished with all my heart that I could go home. This was mostly when I first arrived. When I landed in Accra at the beginning of June I sat down on the bed and thought, “Oh my God, I have 8 weeks here. How will I ever be able to do it?” This feeling stayed with me for some time, especially when I wasn’t feeling well; how could I possibly stay for the two months I committed to? There would be times where I would be laying in bed at night mentally counting down the days until I could go home. I felt so pathetic and so bad for myself because everyone else was having a blast and enjoying their experience while I was on the verge of tears for a week. I spent my days talking to my mom who made the transition much easier because she was very encouraging and sympathetic to my concerns. With this attitude I knew I would never enjoy my time working or being a visitor in this country and since I was going to be here for 8 weeks I needed to change my mindset. With the help from my family and friends at home and the coordinators I was able to begin to change my perspective.
One of the hardest things for me to witness is people in pain. I always knew that I was a very empathetic person, but while being here I realized how much of a problem this could become in the medical world. Going into this experience I had my heart set on medical school and eventually surgery. I follow surgeons on Instagram and find their work so extremely interesting; I love learning about science and the different ways to treat illnesses and what can happen to the body due to certain stresses, but since being here I have a very hard time around sick people. It makes me so sad to think that these people are suffering and many times, I can’t do anything to help. Whether it’s because they have a chronic illness or because they can’t afford care, it breaks my heart. There was a patient in the ob/gyn ward who couldn’t afford to have a colonoscopy to confirm the doctors’ belief that she was suffering from colon cancer; additionally she wouldn’t be able to afford the medicine needed to treat it. All this time she was pregnant and in constant pain. These stories make me question my desire to join the medical field. While I explained this concern to my family, they helped me realize that although this is extremely difficult to witness I shouldn’t allow it to affect how I view all medicine. I needed to change my attitude from expecting this to be a medical internship to viewing it as a way to experience medicine in a different way and in a different country. Most medicine in the US will be very different and now I know that before I make any changes to my vision of becoming a doctor I need to work in a situation that I would actually be in. I haven’t ruled out anything, but I know that as of right now I enjoy more of holistic approach to medicine, a much more difficult task while working in a hospital. Who knows what will happen in the future, fortunately I don’t have to decide what I want to do for a while!
During all of this self-realization, I still had to adjust to the new culture. I thought that I was an adaptable person, but it has taken a long time to get used to the differences. One of the most shocking things for me is the way people act towards the white people.
Some are unbothered by us, but others will stop what they are doing and stare as we walk by or take our picture. Sometimes the men will ask us if we are married or if we can take them back to America and the only thing we can do is apologize and say no. The stereotype that Americans have in Ghana is that we are all very rich, this most likely stems from the fact that 1 US dollar is equivalent to 4.30 Ghana cedi. Because of this, people will give you unfair prices as taxi fares or in shops. We also attract a lot of attention when we go out so occasionally we will make an effort to only go with our coordinators so we feel more comfortable.
Another thing that was hard to adjust to is saying no to children who ask for money. It makes me very sad to see them begging for food or money, however I have come to realize that I cannot help everyone in need, no matter how hard it is to accept that fact. I wish that I could ensure every single child could attend school and learn everything they need to be successful, but unfortunately that isn’t feasible. Our cab driver explained to us that stereotypically the families that live nearest to the coast are “uncivilized” and they do not attend school, or if they do they stop going when they reach 15 or 16 years old. He also explained that those children who beg for money from us on the beach most likely live in those communities. Obviously there is poverty everywhere, but it still is heartbreaking to see it up close and personal.
As I spend more time in Ghana I am becoming more comfortable with the norms and understanding what is acceptable and what is not. I think that this is one of the most important things to learn while being abroad. Other countries have such rich and vibrant cultures and it is fun to immerse yourself in them. It has been an adventure attempting to adjust to the Ghanaian lifestyle, but I couldn’t be more thankful to be able to do so with the other participants. It helps to make grow strong friendships with people and as our coordinators say, the goal is to make close friends that make you want to return to the country. This way when we say “goodbye” what we mean is “see you soon.”