Thursday, August 19, 2010

A helping hand in Ghana

His distinct laugh won me over right from the start. One look at him and he would burst into chesty sounding hysterics, oblivious to the harsh surroundings. Kwame was about nine months old when I first met him at Osu Children’s Orphanage. No one knew his exact age but he was by far one of the healthier looking children in the ward packed with babies and toddlers.

Osu Orphanage was where I chose to do my volunteer work with my sister as we combined a holiday in Ghana with a chance to do some volunteer work. Our initial plan was to work on the street kids programme but as this proved impossible to organise at short notice, we signed up to voluntary work at Osu instead. During our introductory tour of the orphanage the baby unit cried out to my sister and I, where two American volunteers were visibly swamped by a lack of resources and hands to help them with nappy changing and feeding time. Once assigned to the cotful of babies the reality of a third world orphanage hit home. It didn’t help that we arrived just after lunchtime – which means babies from five months old are placed on potties all around the corridor, their heads unable to support themselves. I dared to ask why these babies were not still in nappies. “We don’t have time to be cleaning all their nappies all the time,” was the candid response from one of the aunties running the ward. My heart wrenched as dozens of forlorn eyes looked up at me whimpering to be saved from the potties that they were propped up on. We were told by the aunties to push their potties against bins, walls, cots and even each other for support. When one fell – which was inevitable - it was a dominos effect as all of them would tumble to the ground, with the consequences of upturned potties and hurt babies. I swiftly realised there was two ways to react to this situation – sob hysterically at the tragic set-up or to hold back the emotion and make the time to hug and cuddle these unwanted children. There was only one baby who seemed unperturbed by these tough surroundings: One little child who was propped up in his blue potty with a large bin to support him when I first caught eyes on him. He chuckled when I made eye contact. I did a peekaboo gesture from behind the bin and his protruded belly shook with ripples of laughter. “Who is he?” I asked Auntie Missy, intrigued by the sheer contentment of this baby. “Kwame,” she replied, her smile showing she was just as enamoured by this adorable child.

From that moment Kwame became “my little boyfriend”, the child I secretly wanted to adopt if I could and the baby that I would sneak out of his cot for a cuddle at any opportunity. My actual boyfriend laughed and raised his eyes as I told him about Kwame later that evening. “Oh god you want to do an Angelina on it,” he joked. Deep down, however, I knew he could see the impact this nine month old was having on me. Along with Kwame I had never seen so many children in one room in need of a cuddle. Without volunteers in these orphanages these children stuck indoors all day and there aren’t enough people to clean them, never mind give them quality playtime. I felt both queasy and excited at returning to the orphanage the next day. Sure enough Kwame was there to give me my morning pick me up with a heart warming smile. He had already been fed his porridge mix so I moved on to the smaller babies, letting them glug down their bottles of formula before lying them on the large playmat where they scratched and kicked at eachother for space. Meanwhile the older children at the other end of the corridor would be calling out “Obruni, obruni” (white person) arms outstretched and begging to be picked up for a cuddle. There wasn’t enough time, however, as babies were crying to be washed, changed and fed. The aunties were telling me I needed to speed up my rota of washing babies, while my heart cried out to each of them as I wanted to cuddle them for hours instead of seconds. Hours later once we had washed every baby and pinned their cloth nappies on them and had them back in their cots; I focused on the other children who ranged in age from one to two years. We would take them outside for a run around, play games under the shade of the trees, sing them songs and buy them bananas and juice from the market close by. The rush for second and third helpings of bananas was overwhelming. They would clamour over each other to get one more taste of the sweet fruit.

On my last day at Osu it was unsurprisingly difficult saying goodbye to the children, especially Kwame. I sneaked a cuddle and a picture with him promising I would be back next year. The next day, however, I got a surprise call from one of the volunteers to say Kwame was gone from the orphanage. He had been adopted a few hours after I had kissed him goodbye.It made my departure from Ghana a little easier knowing that the future can be bright for some of the babies like Kwame, despite their tumultuous start in life.

To volunteer at Osu Children's Home visit

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