Accra, Ghana - On the first day of school, I'm nervous and sweaty. About 30 teenagers neatly dressed in peach and brown uniforms stare at me from behind their beat-up wooden desks as the morning sun beats down on the dirt playground outside.
I'm a long way from home; Accra is the capital of Ghana, in West Africa. I mop my forehead with a handkerchief and point to the world map on the blackboard. "What do you know about Canada?" I ask. Hands shoot up around the dirt-floored classroom. My two-month stint as a volunteer English teacher has begun.
The Help a School Project of Ghana (www.haspog.org) was founded by Ghanaian Eric Arthur in 2001 as an alternative form of tourism. A group of about 15 volunteers in the Accra region, it names openness to Ghanaian culture and a high-school diploma as the only qualifications required to participate.
For $400 U.S. the first month and $200 thereafter (fees have since increased), I support a local entrepreneur, enjoy room and board with a Ghanaian family, a home base from which to explore the country. Other expenses, such as airfare and numerous vaccinations to prepare for my trip, are extra. This kind of volunteering isn't cheap.
HASPOG seems to promise a more cultural experience than volunteer vacations offered by some tour operators, which can be high-priced, may involve large groups of Westerners and have a short volunteer component.
Living with the Stephensons, a local family, makes my experience authentic. Mr. Stephenson is owner and principal of Stephenson's International School, where I teach, which has about 50 teachers and 1,000 students from preschool to senior secondary age. As is common at many privately run schools in Africa, students pay tuition (about $16 for a three-month term) to attend the shabby wooden school with outhouse toilets. A lot of time is wasted collecting tuition, and students are frequently "sacked" for not paying their fees.
I'm teaching English grammar and reading to about 200 junior secondary school students each week. My teaching resources include a government syllabus, chalk and a blackboard. But while the teaching material is rudimentary, the students are inspiring - curious, ambitious, friendly and polite. My classes are full of aspiring teachers, doctors, lawyers and politicians.
The Stephensons' five children, aged two to 21, either work at or attend the school, along with four other students boarding at their large but modestly furnished concrete home. At break time, I watch students play clapping and rhythm games or kick a tattered tennis ball around for a soccer game.
At home, the Stephenson parents are hospitable but, disappointingly, formal. I eat dinner - huge portions of Ghanaian cuisine, including fufu, a dough-like substance created by pounding plantains in a huge mortar and eaten with your hands - alone, despite my requests otherwise.
But there are many evenings of reading with the children, playing games and watching them inspect every foreign item in my room, which becomes a sort of playland. I sit outside and watch them dance and drum during frequent power outages, when the humidity inside becomes unbearable without a fan.
That initial teacher-student relationship becomes more of a cultural exchange. It's fair to say I learn more from the Ghanaians than they do from me. Volunteering gives me an intimate view of their culture, and for that reason, of the six African countries I have visited, Ghana remains my favourite.
Interested in a volunteer vacation? Check out Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com). A great resource tool, it has links to non-profit groups including Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org) and Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org).