Pilot story by Marjorie Woodfin
Photos courtesy of Diana Hall
Brookings Harbor High School senior Diana Hall had some eye-opening and broadening experiences this summer when she participated in a community service student exchange program through American Field Service, spending four weeks in Ghana.
Hall said she began researching exchange programs in September of her junior year, and decided that rather than being an exchange student during the school year, the summer program would work better for her.
She said that as she looked into the open programs and "Community service in Ghana jumped out at me because it was working in an orphanage and I love children."
She admitted, "I missed home a lot and it was a hard four weeks." However, she said, it was rewarding and she plans to go back again.
"It was a very extensive intense process," she said about the many forms to fill out, parent letters, and essays required to apply for the program.
The packet introducing her to her host family had not arrived by the time she and her mother had to leave for the Medford Airport July 1. "When it came in that day's mail my dad rushed to the airport with it," Diana said.
The information he delivered to her introduced her to the Agyembfra family: mother, father, 12-year-old Eric "Nanao," 8-year-old Emmanuel "Pafianco," and 3-year-old Ivy "Mamifua" or "Ma."
She said their home was nicer than she had expected. They had running water and an indoor bathroom. "My host family had a flushing toilet, but you had to pour water into it to flush," she said.
There were 29 young people from different parts of the U.S. in the team that traveled together to Ghana and some of the team members stayed in homes without running water.
"It's a small west African country with a huge number of different languages," Hall said, adding that fortunately English was one of them. "It was too good to pass up."
The team spent two days in New York for orientation. "I met everyone on the team. At first I was very shy and I didn't talk much," she admitted. The flights, some long and uncomfortable, she said, took her from Medford to Los Angeles, New York, Frankfort, Lagos, Nigeria, and on to Accra in Ghana.
The team stayed in a hostel in Accra during three days of orientation, learning some of the differences in culture. An example was never to extend a left hand, which Ghanians use for bathroom purposes. "But they didn't tell us it was offensive to spend time alone away from the family," Diana said.
A small problem popped up because at home in Brookings Diana likes to spend time in her room writing in her journal and relaxing after a busy day. She noticed the family had become cool in their attitude toward her and when she asked her host father, "Am I doing something wrong?" he explained that spending time in her room alone made them feel like she didn't like them. "I didn't stay in my room after that," she said.
The food was very spicy, with lots of chicken and rice. At first, Diana said, it felt like biting into raw chicken, but she got used to it. "We ate yams, okra fried in palm oil, and fried plantain," she said. The only food she really didn't like was foo-foo, which is corn mashed with a giant stick. At school she said they talked about American food. "I missed pizza so much."
Her work alternated between teaching children and helping to build a latrine. "I came home exhausted," she said.
She enjoyed working with the children. "There were 52 orphans, but about 200 children came every day for food and school. They are very poor," she said. "Every day at the orphanage after work, they taught us dances. I learned three dances and three songs."
She learned a lot from the time spent in Ghana. "Ghanians are very different, the way they talk and eat, and their respect for elders," she said.
Their attitude about time is different she added. "They operate on GMT: Ghanian man time." It was difficult getting her host family going when they planned to go out. She said it helped her learn to be more patient.
She also learned to realize the importance of conservation, she said. "They use everything and don't waste anything. I never used a full bar of soap before in my life. Leftovers are used to feed the guard dogs. They never pay for dog food."
She said she now has a bigger picture of other cultures. "It made me appreciate America and the freedoms I have here, the food and clean streets and people I love.
"I learned to really love and appreciate my dad and my mom and that I really do love them. It changed my feelings about my relationships back home."
The experience has also had a major impact on plans for her future.
"It's very clear that I want to travel more in the third world countries," Diana said. Her career plans to be a pediatric surgeon serving with Doctors Without Borders are even stronger now. "Going to Ghana really confirmed that belief," she said.
She maintains e-mail and snail mail contact with Philip, a Ghanian volunteer she met on the trip, as well as with other team members.
"It was an awesome experience, seeing people without running water, little children running around naked, and to see how that little community lives together, so happy, friendly, and kind. It was very enlightening."