15th June 2019

Ghana is an extraordinary place

Meg McElwee

Maranatha is an extraordinary place. Even after an eventful journey on day 1, from Accra I quickly realized that, for the next four weeks, there was never going to be a dull moment – and I was right. When we first arrived we were struck by the beauty of it. The gorgeous view of palm trees, bamboo beach huts, international flags (Gibraltar since is one of them!) and Ghanaian painted beach chairs by the river. But the best part comes when you approach the shore by boat and you can hear the delighted shouts and cheering before you see the jumping kids’ smiling faces. The best welcome I’ve ever experienced without a doubt! And it would be a heart-breaking goodbye too, four weeks down the line.

Building the classrooms was tough – I won’t sugar coat it. My weak, wobbly arms struggled through the first days of lifting and shifting stones, sand and water under the hot West African sun all day long. But I surprised myself – I think a lot of us did. Not only does your body adjust (dare I say it, my arms started seriously toning), but a lot of the time you’re having too much fun to think about it. I was surrounded every day by a loud, supportive, open-minded group of people. People who were just happy to get stuck in. A lot of whom, despite how small we think Gib is, didn’t actually know each other before getting on that bus to Malaga. In the Maranatha environment you switch off from everything else – you learn about and learn from your crew, you ask why they decided to come to Maranatha and you ultimately share a life changing experience together.

You grow as a team, and you grow as part of a wonderful, tight-knit community who welcome you with open arms. This is a community of people who often have only ever known Maranatha and the closer neighboring villages – but trustingly make you feel at home. People like Winfred and Sammi are a big part of this trust. They understand and know what their community needs in order to develop, they listen to their neighbors and they make sure that what we go on to build is what’s best for future generations of Maranatha and that’s what counts. And I found that this is also important for everyone who goes to Maranatha to remember – we don’t always know what’s best for the community we’re arriving into, its the people of the community who know best. Really take the time to listen and understand the experiences and cultures within Maranatha – as well as share your own. This exchange of experiences will make the part you play in Maranatha all the more valuable and the legacy you leave more sustainable for the people who live there. This is something I wish I did even more of! On one of our last days the parents of the school kids and other members of the community did just this. They shared their vibrant traditions and culture through dance and music to show their appreciation for our time in Maranatha. This was one of the highlights of the 4 weeks. I know it was the last day, but it felt like everything had come full circle. Everyone was elated during those moments – we all felt settled and happy with what we had achieved and learnt and built. So really, we should have been showing our appreciation – for being so incredibly cared for and hugged into a community that was so different on some level, but so similar on other levels, to our own.

You’ll feel these differences straight away and some will adjust better than others. Like showering in the river, and sharing a more basic toilet facility, limited electricity, bamboo walls and sand for floor. And of course for the build, it’s large metal dishes to carry sand, stones and water from place to place, and shoveling to create cement. However it’s really important to remember that these differences often stem back to part of the reason why you’re in Maranatha – so even though they’re a novelty at first, you should try not to take them for granted. You’re in Maranatha not only for an incredible experience, but to help build an infrastructure for education. Education being the backbone of development. By helping to educate these bright young people, we could potentially have the knock on effect of one day creating a Maranatha that meets the hygiene needs of their community, builds more sustainable shelter for their families, provides a rich, nutritious diet for everyone and connects their small village economy to neighboring small village economies and beyond.

And this is where our many many similarities come in. Just like the community of Gibraltar, Maranatha are strong and united. They are close and connected to their families and friends. They love showing us their traditional meals (Red Red anyone?). They LOVE their national Ghana day and celebrate it just as proudly as we do. They are obsessed with football (and now have their own GFA kits!). They care about their future, they want to see their children go to school, aim higher and create a better world for them.

The ultimate legacy is the kids of Maranatha. The kids that will insist on helping you every step of the way – whether it’s holding the handle of your wheelbarrow or teaching you new sing-a-longs at break times – they will be there! We got to know each and every one of them – and I think more of us than we would like to admit had our favorite kids! You can’t help but immediately love their kind nature, their different personalities shining through from the very beginning, their eagerness to learn and their constant entertainment. Because of these amazing young people, you will never be alone in Maranatha (literally) – and you will love it. And you’ll be devastated when you get home and miss it. You’ll miss it before you’ve even left. We did.

After four weeks of mostly highs and a couple of lows (otherwise known as your peak and pit of the day), I didn’t want to leave. Ever. Even the more testing moments — trying to find the buzzy mosquito that’s miraculously made it into my tightly tucked in bed net; torturous conversations about our favorite pizza toppings when it’s definitely not on the lunch menu; struggling to nail the plastering technique after my 87th try; lifting what feels like the 400th bucket of sand on to my head in the sweltering heat — were totally worth it for the highs. The satisfying moment when we finished the perfectly smooth floors; the amazing kids running to catch up with us every morning to hold our hands on the walk to the site; shower parties every day; toothbrush club under the clear, starry night sky; digesting the days and weeks together as a team around the dinner table; finding a new family in the space of four weeks; working with a resilient and brilliant community to help them reach their full potential – and for me, realizing this is what I wanted to do for life.

Beyond the unbelievable four weeks spent with amazing people, delivering what we set out to do with the generous support of our family and friends, and helping a community get one step closer to a better education and future – Maranatha also helped me realize that learning about and working in International Development was something I wanted to pursue. It ignited a passion in me that I just couldn’t let go of. And it’s done the same for others – the incredible Louise Barea, founder of HelpMeLearnAfrica being a perfect example. And I hope it does the same for future volunteers. You may not change your career path or what you’re going to study in a couple of years time, but I hope it changes your perspective and perception, helps you see what sustainable development can achieve, I hope you share your experience with others. On this last one, I’ve very clearly (judging by this long post) found it very hard not to share!!

Maranatha, I miss you, and I can’t wait to be back soon.