Winter Break in Ghana (2 of 4): Is this helping?

by Brandon Blache-Cohen

This 4-part blog was produced by WVU service-learning students over winter break.  In this post, a student questions the effectiveness volunteers can have through “hammer and nail” service. The student indicates that as unskilled workers, a volunteers best way to “help” with construction service projects might come in other forms.

It seems crazy that we have been in Jukwa for a week now. Filled with colors, and smells, and a constant soundtrack, our time has flown by. At the same time the intensity of our days, combined with the heat has left some of us pretty exhausted.

As our work continues we have begun to challenge the efforts of our service here. When we arrived at the library today the construction of bookshelves was well underway. Upon our arrival part of our tuition was donated to the project, and the old MP (whose brainchild this was) traveled to cape coast to find a standard for library shelves. The following day he commissioned the work, and once again the construction site was alive. At one point four of us were working to help one another saw one piece of wood for the shelves. As we held it down for one another, and laughed about the uneven line we had created, we were left with the question “is this helping”? The carpenter let us get about half way, and then finished the job by himself in half the time it had taken us.

In our classes we have been discussing what it is to help. It seems undeniable that when it comes to the hammer and nail part of this trip, the part we had all assumed would be the ‘service’ in ‘service learning’, we are rather hurting construction than helping it. Now for a little contrast.

Last night Kwame, the site director, prepared some groundnut soup and rice balls for us to enjoy. On our way to his house we passed the MP’s compound. He also serves as the chiefs speaker, and so was present at our community entry on our first day. Always present at the worksite, overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming (well, he is Ghanian), he is a member of the community we are privileged to be close with. As we approached his compound we heard classical choral music blasting from an open room upstairs. Kwame greets us on the street and informs us that we would be eating there, and that Nana (the chief), and all the elders were gathered.

As we filed into the pristine white room we were met with toothy (or lack of toothy) grins and firm handshakes. After going through the formalities of giving and returning greetings, the room opened up. Local bitters were shared around the group, and the elders crooned along to the music blasting from the same sound system we use in my house. We sat and talked with them for several hours, at one point the girls were issued off to see the house and talk with the MP’s wife. The overwhelming connection intertwined with the cultural discomfort was truly astounding. The next day we learnt that during one of the long talks regarding development in Jukwa, the chief requested that Amizade erect a sign in the town proclaiming the strong and steady alliance that has been formed with the community over the years. Again we asked ourselves “is this helping”?