A Day In The Life Of An Orphanage Volunteer In Ghana


Achiase Children's Home children and volunteers

“Do you hear that?” Steph asks groggily, rolling to face me on our over-sized mattress.

I had actually woken up moments before her and was wondering what the noise was myself. At our homestay house in Ghana, Africa, the sounds of bleating sheep and the beeping of the Reed Frog were common at night; however, the high-pitched notes being hit at this moment were neither of those.

My cell phone reads 4:00 AM. Not even Essie, our house mom, should be up at this time.

“Should we be scared?” asks Steph, her voice rising.

While I know something odd is going on, I don’t sense it is anything dangerous. Creeping out of our room, I notice the light in the other volunteers’ room is on. They must have heard it, too. Before I reach the living room I can already tell what it is. Essie is singing choir songs, apparently with some friends. And as the 10 singing women sense me approaching, they all turn to stare in confusion at the white girl in the Batman t-shirt and red Nike shorts.

The day hasn’t even begun, and already it’s already getting interesting.


Steph and I are able to somehow get back to sleep until 7:00 AM, at which time we wake up – or at least force ourselves to stand up with our eyes closed – make our shared bed and get ready for breakfast. There hasn’t been water running through the pipes for a week, and the last time we showered was when it rained three days ago, outside in our bathing suits. We haven’t even finished our rice water and tea before a child comes bursting into the house.

I can tell it’s Isaac, because following the sound of the slamming door there is silence. He loves to hide and scare me when I walk by. Of course, I’ve caught onto the act by now, but I love pretending he has terrified me just to hear his full-bellied laugh.

“Okay guys, I’m just going to go to my room and get my sunglasses,” I say, loud enough for Isaac to hear. I walk loudly so he knows I’m coming, getting ready to act scared once I reach my door. But, as I grab the knob, he isn’t there.

“That’s strange,” I think while standing in the doorway.

“Rah!” he shouts, hugging me from behind.

My shriek can be heard throughout the entire orphanage. Laughing, I hug him back. “You’re much more clever than I give you credit for.”

Kids making their own fun

At The Orphanage

Steph, the other volunteers and I walk across the dirt driveway to the orphanage. The children are all outside, some eating gari, a grated and fried cassava meal, some swinging from trees acting like monkeys and others pretending to be driving cars by pushing around worn-out tires with sticks. If never ceases to amaze me what creative ways these kids find to entertain themselves…

“Ouch!” Isaac screams as his brother Steven punches him in the arm.

…and how much they beat on each other.

Abigail, a 12 year old girl from the orphanage, organizes the female volunteers to sit in a row of small plastic chairs our butts barely fit on. I feel the plastic threatening to crack under my adult weight. Every morning, the young girls like to create a mock salon, doing the volunteers’ hair and nails. My nails have been painted three times this week, and I don’t think I’ll ever get the polish off. It’s worth it though, getting to see how Abigail and the other girls consult each other with big smiles on our new looks.

Isaac runs over and sits across from me on a half-deflated soccer ball for a staring contest. While I like to pretend I let him win, the truth is I think he practices, because he’s really good. As he’s deep in concentration, Kwami, an eight-year-old toughie, comes over and kicks the ball out from under him for no reason. Suddenly, Steven, who moments before had been punching his brother Isaac, swoops in to defend him, kicking Kwami in the shin. While in the beginning I would try to break up these spats, I’ve learned to only intervene if it looks like someone will break a bone. They just happen too often. The thing I’ve also realized is, despite the fact these kids fight constantly, they usually go back to being best friends within the hour.

Once the boys have stopped fighting I get them to “drive me to the grocery store.” It’s a game where we get in a line, with the first person rolling an old tire, and follow along pretending to be in a car. The kids are excited to “make lunch” (mud pies), and we get the necessary ingredients: stones, grass, dirt and small flowers. I grab some cans for them to “cook” in, and they go wild.

As I’m laying in the shade reading a book, Isaac, Kwami and Stephen run over to me holding a giant plastic bag covered in mud and dirt. It takes all three of them to carry it.

Isaac steps forward. “We made you lunch. We worked very hard on it.”

I feel a lump in my throat. It is the best lunch I have ever been served.


A Visit

Later in the afternoon, after everyone has eaten their real lunch of rice and an orange, I notice an unfamiliar car approach.

“My dad’s here!” Abigail shouts excitedly.

Steph and I both freeze, instinctively putting our guards up toward this man. We didn’t know any of the children had parents they spoke to, and figured if they did the mother or father must not be trustworthy.

To our surprise, however, a friendly man emerges from the car, wraps his daughter in a hug and spends the entire day talking and playing with her, even giving her two Ghana Cedis to buy candy for herself. We learn that for some of the children, the problem isn’t their families don’t want them, but that they can’t afford to keep them. While sad, it makes me happy to know some of them have some outside support, along with their orphanage family.

“What are you going to buy with your two cedis?” I ask Abigail.

She smiles, holding up thirty-two candies. “I bought everyone candy.”

And, what a loving family to be in.

The Night

No matter what fights, arguments or upsets happen during the day, they all melt away come night time. I set up the CD player in the main room of the orphanage and clear a space. It’s dance party time. High Life music fills the air, as the kids dance on chairs and put pots and pans on their heads, letting loose and having fun. Even the children who are normally shy run into the middle of a dance circle once their favorite song comes on.

While everyone has their particular favorite tracks, there is one song everyone – including the volunteers – can’t get enough of. It’s called “I Love My Life” (video above), and anytime it plays you can see every person in the room get up and sing.

Mi love my life
Oh, oh
Mi love my life
So mi a live my life today

I’m not sure if the children actually understand what they are saying, but hearing them all sing the lyrics with huge grins on their faces is, by far, the best part of my day as a orphanage volunteer in Ghana.

Orphanage Information

Of course, not all orphanages in Ghana are the same. My experience at the Achiase Children’s Home probably wouldn’t match another volunteer’s experience at a different orphanage, or even another volunteer at the same orphanage. For those who are interested in volunteering at this home, I went through International Volunteer Headquarters.

Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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