Life in Ghana

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Gladys Obaji | 11/07/2022

For two weeks [in 2019], I had the opportunity to volunteer at the St. Gregory Catholic Hospital in Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp. I am Nigerian-American, however, I have always wanted to experience health care in at least one African country. The opportunity to do so was presented to me through A Broader View Volunteers, a non profit organization that allows volunteers to explore a new country while also taking part in meaningful service work.

Upon arrival to Ghana, I was greeted by one of the hosts who helped me to exchange currency and purchase items that I might need throughout my stay. My hosts were Shadrack and Eugenia. Shadrack is the founder of the Future Stars School and Orphanage in Buduburam and his sister Eugenia helps him with the management of the school and house that they reside in with the orphans. The work that they are doing with both institutions is amazing, and it is amazing how one individual’s vision could impact so many people. Because of them, several students who would not have otherwise had the means to go to school, now have hopes of being educated. If you are interested in sponsoring any of the children with just $466 dollars a year in order for them to continue their education into Junior HS, please let me know!

Some of the students at the school also lived at the orphanage and I had the opportunity to interact with them as a friend and sister. They were so happy and willing to help me whenever I needed something. They loved playing with my phone and looking through pictures of my American life. It was as if America was a different planet and I was an alien giving them top secret information. It reminded me of the quote by Francesca Marciano, “When you leave Africa, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent you’re leaving a state of mind. Whatever awaits you at the end of your journey will be of a different order of existence.” The difference was clear. 

From Monday to Friday at 8 am, I would head over to the hospital in my scrubs and stethoscope. Each day I was in a different department and shadowed the physician and nurses. I had the opportunity to work in the emergency room, theatre (operating room), maternity ward, female/male ward, antenatal, psychiatry, ENT and OPD (outpatient). I assisted in maternity needs, charting patients, taking patients’ history, physical examination including blood pressure. In the theatre, I assisted in setting up the room each time a new patient was ushered in. I participated in grand rounds with other students at the hospital and enjoyed the many questions thrown at us because it helped me to test my medical knowledge.

At the end of the day, Shadrack would pick me up with lunch and we would head home. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, interacting with the children and preparing dinner. Several nights were spent exploring nightlife, while weekends were reserved for church and tourist attractions.

Life in Ghana was definitely different from life in America, however it was familiar due to my Nigerian background. Dinner was often cooked outside using coal and fire, service was poor, electronics were used minimally and there were more authentic foods available as opposed to junk--- all this forced me to be present in the moment and it also made me grateful for the things/options that I did have in the U.S.

Ghana’s Healthcare System

The healthcare system in Ghana definitely needs restructuring. The hospital was severely under equipped and understaffed and physicians were not being paid enough for all the work that they had to do. Most of the physicians were general practitioners, while specialists worked on designated days. I was amazed at the breadth of knowledge that one physician could have. One physician, Dr. Smith, could perform about 4-5 C sections, do rounds for patients in the maternity ward and then another several rounds for the entire male and female ward in one day. Another physician, Dr. Yaidoo, did his rounds in the children's ward and then transferred to the ER to assist acute patients. There were a limited number of beds and resources in the ER and majority of the patients were children. Scanning and X-rays were limited and reserved for special cases, so I could only imagine how many cases went misdiagnosed. I will never forget one nurse who told me that when her dad was sick and they took him to a hospital in Ghana, he felt like he was “going to die”. However, immediately he began treatment outside of the continent the feeling was gone; he felt safe.
Ghana has a national universal medical insurance system, the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) which covers hospitalizations, outpatient doctor visits, basic laboratory testing and certain medications.

However, it does not cover more expensive procedures such as HIV medications, thoracic, neuro- or plastic surgery, other elective surgery, transplant medication/surgery, infertility evaluations, hemodialysis, cancer treatment (with the exception of cervical and breast cancer) and much more. Patients are therefore forced to pay out of pocket for expensive treatment and medication or otherwise forego them and bear the consequences. Since 2010, more than half of the population of Ghana has enrolled in the program, but the poorest and sickest are least likely to be enrolled (Drislane F., Akpalu A., et. al, 2014).

My experience at the hospital was that most patients had health insurance, but since more expensive treatments were not covered many of them struggled to pay their bills. I remember one lady who was practically humiliated for being in the maternity ward past her discharge date. However, she could not leave until her bills were paid.

Unlike the U.S. there was rarely any push for preventive and social medicine when patients met with their physician; consistent drug use was the norm. I must say, however, that the psychiatric department regularly went to patients’ homes to check up on them. It was a practice that was new to me in modern medicine. Overall, medical practice in Ghana is consistent with medical practice abroad; however, most of the discrepancy and issue comes from a lack of funding and resources.

Volunteerism in Africa

I wish that more people of African descent would volunteer in African countries. I noticed that past volunteers with the program have been majority White and White-hispanic and the same trend applies to other volunteer agencies. I appreciate all their help and the zeal that they have to give back to Africa, a few of the volunteers had even more zeal than I did. However, at the end of the day they would go back to their respective countries with no familial ties to Africa. There are millions of Africans in the diaspora and it is disheartening that people of non-African descent are more willing to volunteer in Africa than those of African descent.

Those in diaspora have more power to help their respective countries because they are aware of the culture and can thus be more sensitive to how things work in the country. They have a better understanding of how to bring about change because not only do they have cultural knowledge but they also have knowledge of proper structuring and management from residing in a developed country (i.e. US, UK).

I donated some supplies to the hospital and tried my best, but I left Ghana feeling useless. I felt this way because despite the items that I had donated, it did not change the system that failed millions of people that I had no way of getting in contact with. I would leave, and the children at the orphanage would still have to grow up in a country whose leaders are corrupt and could care less about the welfare of the country’s citizens. I didn’t have the capacity, money nor the power to change the system, and that is what pained me the most.