I have had a couple experiences so far that have altered the way that I perceive the volunteer or working with people you are “helping.” This does not mean that volunteer work isn’t important. However, sometimes I think we get so caught up in our roles as “volunteers” and “helpers,” we forget the impact we can make in other ways. Simple ways.
This morning we did reading practice with a few of the kids from the Challenging Heights School. It is part of our orientation and learning all the aspects of CH’s work. This morning, I work with 5 kids in 4 different groups. I loved working with all the kids. They were all super excited to be in the CH library, which is currently closed until the organization can find a librarian, and they seemed to really enjoy reading, learning new works in English, and hearing me try to speak bad Fante to them.
Still, the last child I worked with definitely stood out to me the most, largely because of the experience we shared. Kwasi picked a Ghanaian satire to read, which was written in both English and Fante. Since it was a play, we decided to each read different lines back and forth. As there was a mix of Fante and English, I also had to try to read Fante. It soon became clear that my pronunciation was awful. Written Fante has a mix of letters we would commonly see in English and letters in a completely different form. This meant that I had absolutely no clue how to pronounce certain parts of words. I definitely sounded hilarious.
Instead of the lesson simply being the Kwasi reading and me correcting him, he ended up correcting my pronunciation and teaching me Fante as much as I corrected his English reading. It became obvious that we were both really enjoying teaching each other. He also obviously felt great about teaching me something, being able to show how much he knew. He began to really smile and laugh, and we began to joke around. It was relaxed and there stopped being he perception that the only roles that existed were myself as the volunteer, leader, and teacher and Kwasi as the person I was helping. It became clear that were just having fun and both learning a lot from each other.
I had a similar experience a few days prior when myself and the other interns watched the Challenging Heights School dance and culture group perform. The kids followed the performance by teaching us parts of the dance they had performed. Similar to seeming ridiculous when trying to learn Fante, I looked very silly when doing West African dance. I love to dance, but I am not very good at it in general. I have little coordination, and I generally fail to shake my hips like you are supposed to. In West African dance, being able to do these things is highly important.
As you can probably guess, my dancing caused many people to laugh. No one laughed more than the girl teaching me. She couldn’t seem to figure out why I couldn’t shake and move my hips like she was. At times, we even had to stop dancing because she would be doubled over laughing, falling to the side of the “stage.” While I did get better at the dance, she continued to giggle. During this time, I really had not done anything “volunteer” wise but I had probably “done” more for her by just letting her teach me and laugh at me.
Often I find when volunteering that I am getting more out of the experience than the kids I am helping and that I am perceived as superior. The experience reading with Kwasi was so relieving because it was obvious that he was having as much fun teaching me – that we were equals – as he was improving his English reading. The experience dancing with the girl showed me that you don’t have to be doing direct volunteer work sometimes to accomplish similar goals. I think that this is often an aspect missing in volunteering. These experiences better showed me that it is often just as important to let people give to you and teach you, as it is to teach and help others.