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A study in contrasts: Volunteering in Ghana refugee camp
08 April 2008
by Heather Ibbotson

Months spent as volunteers in a refugee camp for Liberians provided a quick immersion into the eye-opening contradictions of modern Africa for two young Canadian women.

Christina Ainsworth, 22, and Gillian Donkers, 24, entered a world where Walkmans, flashy clothes, jewelry and other Western 'bling' mix equally with malnutrition, disease, rotting piles of garbage and a landscape littered with discarded black plastic bags filled with human excrement.

Such an experience "gives you a new perspective on everything," Ainsworth said Sunday."It's survival of the fittest for them."Ainsworth, of Brantford, and Donkers, of Mount Pleasant, spent six months and four months, respectively, at a refugee camp in Ghana last year, after volunteering with an African aid agency called Children Better Way."I was looking for volunteer work in Africa to get the experience of a different culture," Donkers said.The West African refugee camp has been home for about 20 years to between 30,000 and 50,000 Liberian refugees who fled their homeland due to civil war.Ainsworth and Donkers arrived last August and spent their days teaching mathematics and health, cleaning garbage, digging out drains and promoting protection against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.Often, they were called upon to "play nurse" by bandaging injuries, Ainsworth said, recounting one time they patched up a child's superficial head wound.Overprescribed medicationA village clinic operated largely by untrained personnel highlighted another unexpected contradiction - the overprescription of medication. Donkers said she saw one child administered Valium for a sore hand while another youngster feeling unwell was given six different medications.Ainsworth and Donkers also had to become savvy in a hurry to avoid being taken in by canny beggars, young and old, who tell heartwrenching stories to prompt an outlay of cash.Money received will often be spent on acquiring immediate 'bling' even though "there's no food in their bellies," Ainsworth said.Still, there are those who do look to the future and, seeing the value in education, scrape together money to pay to send their children to school, she said.The two volunteers lived with about a half-dozen others from the U.S. and U.K. Their diet included a lot of rice and a doughy mashed cassava dish called fufu.They were privileged to have the use of a 'bucket flush' - a sit-down toilet without running water that was cleansed by dumping a bucket of water into it. Camp residents do their business in nearby fields or use plastic bags that they freely discard.Both young women now know there is much to do in the way of education in places such as this where despair, ignorance and hopelessness seem to breed a moment-to-moment existence.Would they return?"Yes, in a heartbeat," Ainsworth said.She said she would love to return to help refugee women rebuild their lives through programs such as one designed to encourage prostitutes to realize they have potential and worth, not just with their bodies, but with education and skills training.The concept of self-sustainability is just beginning to make a dent, Ainsworth said."It's inspiring to see they can catch on to that."