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Redefining My Expectations of the "Global South"

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How can you prepare for the unknown?

When you’re up-to-the-minute on what’s happening in the world it’s easy to think you know things. Every day we’re getting tweets from warzones, pictures from the “global south” and an endless stream of English-language opinions on Latin America or the Far East. It would take a long time travelling, though, to get a foothold on any of these places for real.

For three months, I’m hoping to get away from the news feeds and the academic ideas and start carving out my own foothold—in Ghana.

Three months is not a long time and Ghana is a big place. I’ll be in the north-west region of Jirapa, where Voluntary Service Overseas is working with a local NGO to get more kids in full-time education. This is going to be the first of many small steps towards that aim of actually knowing something about the world, not just “seeing” or reading about it; my first time travelling with a purpose.

So this is a starting point. Rather than learning a lot about the country, let alone Africa or the rest of the world, I’m hoping to just make connections and work with some new people towards some new goals. That’s the plan, anyway.

When expectations are shaped by someone else’s experience, they’ll never completely measure up to your reality.

Two years ago I was getting ready for my first extended stay away from home—a short train ride down from the north of England to university in the south—and I was asking a friend’s older sister how she had found it.

“It’s amazing, you’ll love it.” Just what everyone else had said – it had to be true.

“You’ll hang out here and here, and everyone hates the people who live there.” I hastily took notes-to-self.

“Oh, and don’t forget to take one of these.” Not something I saw myself needing, but if it’s what they do in the south...

The truth was that I would never hang out there, I’d actually get on more with the people who lived over there and I definitely wouldn’t be needing one of those. When expectations are shaped by someone else’s experience, they’ll never completely measure up to your reality—at least not in my experience.

With that in mind, I’m trying not to expect too many specific things about my time in Ghana. After a flood of vaccinations and a long training weekend to prepare for the challenges of working in a completely different environment, this is proving difficult.

“You will get diarrhoea and vomiting.”

“You will miss your loved ones.”

“You will catch malaria and die.”

No one told us any of these things, but it’s hard not to tell yourself. Sitting in a seminar room on the third caffeine-fuelled day of our training weekend, I and my fellow soon-to-be volunteers exchanged worries about the trip ahead. The only real preoccupation for me was getting ill and missing out on days or weeks of the placement, the likelihood of which will seriously increase with a new diet, new routine and searing new climate. Often the worst thing about getting ill is the impact it can have on the people around you—not great if you’ve just met those people and you’re trying to make a good impression.

I did develop one expectation from my training, which I’m going to hold on to, and that’s people power. Volunteering organizations are all about people, and I’m confident that the same people who are a key resource for development in Ghana are going to be a great support system. In a people-power environment like that, what to expect is what you bring to it yourself. So as cliché and not strictly true as it is, I’m going with the old saying “it is what you make of it.”

Overall, then, am I feeling positive? Well there was one thing that my friend’s sister was right about that first time I moved away from home: “You’ll love it.”

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Nick Benson

Nick Benson studies languages in the UK and feels “the world of work” looming on the horizon. On a summer placement in Ghana with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) he’s writing about pushing borders, making friends and keeping the mosquitos at bay.

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