As someone whose travel experience was extremely limited, you’d think organising a medical elective in an African country like Ghana would be the last thing I’d try to do. But ever since I heard of medical students undertaking electives in countries like Ghana I knew I wanted to try it when the time came.
When fourth year finally came, I knew the time to decide where to go and how to get there was coming up, and I still planned on going to Africa, but I had no idea what to do, having only left the country precious few times before. Thankfully, a friend of mine offered a solution. She had undergone a trip to Ghana the previous year with Work the World, and she said she’d had a brilliant time, and that they really made everything pretty easy for her. So, after putting off organising my elective for quite some time, I contacted them to ask if there were any placements available in Ghana, and they got back to me quickly, saying that there were, so that was that!
It was pretty easy to get everything organised for going away, especially with the MyTrip page, which had everything I needed to do laid out, and provided a comprehensive information pack that told me the kind of stuff I would need, including clothes & supplies. Rob from WTW also phoned up a few times, to make sure preparations were going well. Since the idea of travelling to an African country was totally new to me, this info was invaluable, and proved itself even more so once I actually arrived.
I arrived a little early for my placement, but after a few flights & sitting around airports, I arrived in Accra and was met by a representative of WTW, Ezekiel, as soon as I got to the airport exit. Ezekiel was very friendly and really helpful, which was exactly what I needed, as I was fairly nervous! The next day we embarked on the long journey to Takoradi, and myself and another student met with Joe the Programme Manager (after we’d been treated to some dinner of course). He welcomed us to Ghana, and explained about our placements, the house rules, and a little bit more about the local culture. A couple of days later we were taken around the city, so we could get an idea of where the hotspots were like the internet café, the main shops & banks, and of course the beaches! We also acquired money and mobile phones, which were pretty cheap, and certainly a lot less expensive than using your own phone internationally.
Since we arrived at a time when other students were just leaving, the house seemed a little empty at first (which it definitely wasn’t by the time I left), but in terms of a quality place to stay it was excellent. The rooms were kept nice and cool by the fans (which had an added function of drowning out the noise from outside), and were definitely big enough to keep all your stuff in.
There was plenty of room to hang out around the rest of the house, and loads of room outside. Cold showers were a bit of a shock a first, but I soon got into the routine of having an epic cool-down shower after placement – glorious. It was also pretty close to both a few shops & a pretty cheap internet café. I thought the food might have taken a bit of getting used to, but I fell in love with it almost straight away, especially glorious Red Red (a kind of bean casserole). On Thursday nights, Al-Hassan, usually the Housekeeper, would take up new duties as both barbecue chef & dance-master, and we’d all get up and dance to some crazy Ghanaian tunes.
On our first day, Joe took us all around the large regional hospital where we were based, so we could get to know our way around. The staff were very welcoming and delighted to have us, and it didn’t take all that long to get settled in. I undertook 3 weeks in General Surgery and 2 weeks in OBGYN, splitting up days between ward rounds, clinics & theatre. I got some really excellent experience & teaching from the head surgeon, who treated ward rounds and theatre sessions almost as tutorials, since he was so fond of teaching students and junior doctors. Similarly, the consultant obstetricians were keen to teach the students at ward rounds, and we did our best to make a good impression. It did take a while to get used to the differences in healthcare, but the way I saw it was that I came to Ghana to experience healthcare that was radically different from back home, so I tried to have an open mind.
I had so many unique experiences during my time in Ghana that it’s pretty hard to pinpoint one, but if I had to, it’d be the barbecue night that Joe had organised some “alternative entertainment” to the usual dancing. As it turned out, he’d gotten a local music group to come in and not only put on a dance show for us, but also teach us to dance and play music like them! Needless to say, it took a little time to get the hang of it, but soon we were all up dancing & drumming and by the end of it we were totally exhausted!
Where to begin with travel adventures? Almost every weekend was dedicated to travelling somewhere, with a variety of fabulous beaches and old castles to visit nearby. Our first real adventure is when we travelled around eastern Ghana, a massive 3-day exploit, trekking, climbing, swimming and much more. Highlights included the trip to the monkey sanctuary, where we got to feed the monkeys, a dip underneath the largest waterfall in West Africa, and a trip up to a village where we got to carry some kids up to Umbrella Rock (which is what it sounds like). The following weekend was another great adventure, to Kakum National Park, home of Africa’s only Canopy walk. Seeing the sunrise over a rainforest canopy was simply breathtaking, and walking over a forest was not something I ever thought I’d experience. Organising wasn’t really a problem, as Ezekiel did his best to make sure everything was planned out for us in advance, and was an excellent source of ideas for where to go.
Since my flights were a little wonky and I ended up leaving slightly early, I had my Village Experience in the middle of my placement, which I actually found to be a nice break. I thought it would be putting myself even further out of my comfort zone, as if spending six weeks in Africa weren’t far out enough, but I settled in fine. As usual, everything was provided, I didn’t even need any money, and the only thing I needed to buy was a gift of apple schnapps for the chief (never quite found out the reason for that). I had my own small two-room house, and had all my food made for me, which was a little different from usual, as it consisted of local dishes, which I sometimes got to help make!
The clinic itself was pretty small, but everyone was very friendly, and it wasn’t long ‘til I felt part of the place. It was refreshing to be able to do a little more, even if that consisted of helping out with diagnoses and suggesting treatments, and occasionally referring to the local hospital. Outside clinic, I found myself frequently entered in local table tennis tournaments, and there were also some activities planned, including a trip to the beach and a tour around a nearby farm, where I got to attempt to get coconuts out of a tree (very difficult), and cut down some palm nuts, followed by failed attempts to carry them on my head. I also got to meet the village chief, who told me a little of the history of the village and also about the politics of representing a small village in Ghana. The kids were of course, excited, and it was quite an experience seeing & taking part in some of the games they played, given that they largely played with whatever they could find, including a game where you had to flip your bottle cap over your opponents bottle cap. The language barrier was a little more prevalent, but everyone was so friendly that it didn’t pose too much of a problem. Overall, I am really glad I took part in the Village Experience, as it gave me even more experience of life in Ghana than I got just in Takoradi.
My time in Ghana will certainly never be forgotten, and I personally found Work the World’s help to be invaluable.
Some tips I could offer to future students
- Bring plenty of sunscreen, after sun & mosquito repellent, as it’s pretty hard to get hold of once you’re there, other than the vast quantities of leftover stuff from previous students
- Bring plenty of stuff to do - a pack of cards is pretty much essential – there isn’t always a lot to do in the evenings
- Take care purchasing HIV PEP – if you’ve got good health insurance, it should cover it if you need it, and it’s in good supply in Ghana – but do make sure you check before you go
- And finally, do not under any circumstance refuse to dance on barbecue night
Other than that, all I can say is enjoy your trip!