Asmita Ghosh is a second year student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. She spent a month volunteering at ‘Beacon House‘ , an orphanage in Ghana.
I hadn’t quite anticipated what volunteering at a Ghanaian orphanage for a month would bring. Sure, I thought I would feel the obligatory happiness associated with doing my bit for the (global) community. And I was definitely a bit frightened about dealing with the kids – what if they didn’t like me? What if I didn’t know how to handle them? What if I had to change diapers?
I certainly hadn’t anticipated how completely I would fall in love with Beacon House Ghana the day I started working there. Or how I would realize I am quite a natural with children (or maybe it’s just the Beacon House kids). And that I needn’t have worried, because diapers are changed solely by Mama Irene.
The first morning I was put in the preschool room, solely in charge of Mary (5), Michael (3) and Kweesi (3), after an introduction by Aunty Elaine. I didn’t quite know what to do when they decided hiding out under the table was more fun than listening to me read out a Bible story. I tried coaxing them out, but they were so gleeful at their illicit behaviour that I just decided to let them out to ride their battered cycles 30 minutes too early.
I went to my lunch break feeling like a thoroughly incompetent teacher, and learned my first lesson of my trip – kids are hard work. My apprehension lightened drastically when I got back to Beacon House for the afternoon session. The older kids got home from school and I had nothing more taxing to do than read to them, colour with them, and help a couple of them out with their subtraction homework.
The following days at Beacon House got me progressively more attached to the kids. Mary, Michael and Kweesi started listening to me more during class. I realised I really, really loved kids. Or these kids anyway. I realized that kids might be hard work but for once in my life, I didn’t mind working hard. Not if it got me spending more time with them.
I spent the next three weeks working at Beacon House, and didn’t have too much time to discover the bustling metropolis of Accra. My sister, who was living there at the time, (and was the reason I picked Ghana to spend a month of my vacation at) had told me about Accra so I didn’t arrive there with most of the common misleading stereotypes about Africa. Most of my friends back home thought I’d be living in a hut and picking flies off starving children at some sort of refugee camp. Accra though, reminded me of any Indian city I’d been in. The people in general were very friendly, especially to “obronis” (white people, which apparently I was in Ghana). Most people spoke English – much like India. There was no trouble communicating anywhere and I barely ever felt like I was at a “foreign country”. Ghanaians know how to have fun though. The couple of times I went out with my sister to a night-club was crazy, even a night-club-amateur like myself knew that the atmosphere there was like nowhere else in the world.
My last week in Ghana was spent travelling down the coastline in the south. There were fantastic beaches and delicious food, but I spent most of my time wondering what the kids were up to. I’d said a long goodbye to each of them on my last official day there, and read them one last story with them in their PJs; but I intended going back there one last time the day before my flight back home.
The best thing about Beacon House was that it was a happy place. The fact that it is an orphanage for children whose parents have either abandoned them or died is something that you barely ever remember. You never feel pity, and rarely feel sad despite the inherent sadness in the existence of such an institution. This is because the children are so happy, and the place itself is so bright, that there seem to be absolutely no dark shadows for bad thoughts or sadness to lurk in.
The children are very at home at Beacon House. They are well mannered and also very responsible. What amazed me was how well the older kids managed to look out for the younger kids without being patronizing. And older and younger is a relative term at Beacon House. Ben (10) might help Zenabu (6) to wash her hands, but you also see Mary (5) dragging Stevie (2) to lunch. Also, the children help Solo (16, but mentally challenged and visually impaired) around the house, although Solo himself is remarkably proficient in navigating a house filled with 20 rambunctious children, an equally rambunctious dog, and lots of corners. He always has a huge smile on his face, but that’s not something he alone is restricted to. The Beacon House children are always at two extremes – either smiling so widely that I see most of their 26 (or less) teeth or wailing their hearts out like Kweesi and Addo (8) are prone to do at the smallest slight.
With each new day, I developed bonds with new children. Helen (9) and I got close over a shared distaste for math, and the sad necessity of having to get down to Math homework despite it being so painful. To Daniel (6) I started entrusting my prized camera once I taught him how to use it – something I barely allow even adults to touch – because he turned out to be such a remarkable photographer. Ben (10) is someone I instantly adored, because of his constant smile and because he helped me out with the pre-schoolers when they weren’t listening to me – their fear of him not talking to them anymore was much more effective than my contrived threats. When I found out he was getting adopted by a very nice family in the USA, I was over the moon. He showed me an album his family had sent him and gave me a bone-crushing hug that I returned with equal fervour when I told him I was really happy for him. Why I fell in love with Samuel (9 months) is not too hard to understand. Once you see his huge eyes and his toothy little smile, with that natural little Mohawk he sports, it is hard not to be enraptured. You almost don’t notice his missing foot and his fused fingers – the reasons for which he was no doubt abandoned.
When I did pause to think about the fact that a lot of these bright, laughing children were abandoned, the only question that hit me was – why? Why would you abandon someone so special, and smart, and beautiful? I’m sure the parents had their reasons, but something like this is unjustifiable, to use an understatement. But whatever misfortunes these kids endured earlier, their biggest blessing was to have landed in Beacon House, in the capable hands of Romana Testa (the founder), Aunty Elaine, Aunty Lynn, Mama Irene, Aunty Dinah, Aunty Mercy and Mama Vivian.
Beacon House was not only the best thing that happened to the children, but also to me. Sweeping statements like – ‘it changed my life’ are not really my thing, but this time I’ll have to make an exception.