Come a Monday morning, plenty of us can be found daydreaming about taking off and escaping the daily humdrum. Few of us, once we’re entrenched in the toils of grown up employment and adult responsibilities, have the gumption to actually do it. But one couple did.
Josie and Graeme Scott, based in New Zealand, decided to take a one-year vacation from their lives. Rather than committing to a full-time position as beach bums or backpackers, they chose to volunteer in Ghana for a year, in a small village called Dzita.
Enter Meet Me There, a not-for-profit lodge that offers amazingly rustic accommodation and acts as a facilitator to an NGO, Dream Big Ghana, that works to improve sanitation, education and health care for local people. Basically, this means that when people come to enjoy the lagoon-side huts and teepees of MMT, they’re doing good at the same time by helping support the local charity.
So what made Josie and Graeme decide to volunteer in Ghana? Well, having stayed at MMT before, Josie knew how it worked and about the good it did with the local community. When she found out that the director was in the market for a sabbatical (aren’t we all?) she volunteered herself and Graeme to run the lodge for a year.
“MMT fitted with what we were looking for in terms of work and also we both love Ghana, the climate, people and the general environment, especially at MMT. People around us found it unusual and questioned why we would walk away from our very comfortable lives and work, which created a few doubts, but we talked through this and recognised it was outside others’ comfort zones and we didn’t have to carry their worries,” explained Josie.
And so began a year of African adventure away from everything they were used to. They greeted guests and took bookings, cooked and cleaned, shopped and swam and ultimately become a part of this tiny village community.
One year on and Josie and Graeme are now back in New Zealand adjusting to life at home.
I caught up with the pair to ask if giving it all up for Ghana is as amazing as it sounds and what advice they’d have for others looking to spend a year making a difference outside their homes and comfort zone.
What was different about spending a year at MMT rather than, say, backpacking for a year?
Our experience of backpacking in the past has been great and very different to actually staying and working in one place. Backpacking, we got to meet lots of other travellers and see some very special places. However, living at MMT we also got to meet travellers and see special places, plus we got to really feel community life, learn a lot about the local culture and customs and be part of community events and celebrations like weddings, funerals and meetings. We were well known by locals and so became part of the community.
What did the average day look like for you both as interim directors of the accommodation spot?
Each day could be different, of course, depending on guest numbers and what was happening with the NGO. We tended to split the roles as there was a lot to do. A typical day for me might be getting up around 7.30am and doing some yoga before checking the bookings for the day, talking with housekeeping and the kitchen team. If it was market day I’d usually go with one of the team and if not, I would greet guests that arrived, maybe take a couple on an outing, make sure all staff were doing ok, and help wherever needed.
Graeme was more involved behind the scenes – the first three months he completely renovated the garden. He also set up an accounting system and did a stock check. He would get up before me and greet all the staff as they arrived, check in with the accounts from the day before and work out the plan for the day with the mason team for Dream Big Ghana. He also did a lot of the manual work around the place along with the male team.
We also ran various projects throughout our time for Dream Big Ghana, basically as one project finished we started another.
Now that the year is complete and you’re back home, what do you feel you got from the experience?
Patience. Time is viewed differently and so expecting things to run the same way as they do in New Zealand is going to lead to disappointment. Everything gets done in its own time, and that was a very valuable lesson to learn. People are also very friendly in Ghana, but it actually takes a long time to really get to know what’s going on. Being patient and building relationships slowly is very rewarding.
Using what we have rather than what we think we need was another lesson. Here, we are bombarded with “stuff.” Living outside the city with few resources is a good way to learn to make do with what’s around us.
How do you think more people can be encouraged to make more socially-conscious choices about where they stay when travelling?
Check out where the money is going and who is employed where you’re staying. If all the staff are local then you know that the community around you benefits from your stay (for each staff member MMT employs, around 20 other people will benefit from their wage). Ask if any of the money from the accommodation option goes into local projects and about any environmental activities.
Thinking of MMT and similar projects, do you have advice for others wanting to spend a longer period of time supporting (working for or staying with) an ethical project? How should they go about choosing one?
This is a great question! It was a personal connection for us, however the choice was also based on the fact that we had seen first-hand the work being done, we knew there was a trust in the UK made up of professional and trustworthy people and that any money raised went directly to the community projects.
So, my advice is to look for organisations that’ll provide you with their annual reports, that aren’t charging a ridiculous amount to go volunteer and that can really track what they’re doing with the money being raised for them.
Check out where you will be staying, what support is in place for you and what the role entails. We heard some horror stories from volunteers — as well as some really positive ones of course — but just because an organisation calls themselves an NGO doesn’t mean they’re working ethically.
Make sure the work being done is community led and driven. A lot of damage can be done by very well-meaning people “seeing a need” and going in to “fix things” without consulting local chiefs, community members etc.
Finally, take time to research where you’re going, expect the unexpected and know that you’ll take a lot more from the experience than you’ll give — when you leave everyone’s lives go on as always, it will be yours that changes.