Far from home, briefly

Why 154 Yale alumni paid $2,000 each, plus plane fare, to work for free in Ghana.

Cathy Shufro, a spring 2012 fellow of the International Reporting Project, teaches writing at Yale.

Jane Hahn

Jane Hahn

Michael Morand ’87, ’93MDiv, above with his middle-school class at Yamoransa, taught the poem written for President Obama's inauguration day during one of his educational enrichment classes. View full image

When the five buses roll into the Ghanaian town of Yamoransa, hundreds of children are waiting on the red dirt plaza in front of a low-slung concrete-block school building. The children bob and shout as 160 Yale volunteers climb off the buses and cautiously skirt the steep open sewer that separates the highway from the plaza. For five days in late July and early August, in this impoverished town on Africa’s Atlantic coast, this scene will repeat itself every morning: the volunteers plowing through the throng, the Ghanaian children reaching out for handshakes, saluting the visitors with high fives, and sometimes crowding around two ten-year-old volunteers to touch their long hair. (The Ghanaian schoolchildren have buzz cuts, boys and girls alike.)

On this morning, as the volunteers migrate to their various posts, 15-year-old Emmanuel Arthur waits eagerly for three Yale volunteers to make their way up the hillside to an open-sided cinderblock classroom. When the teachers arrive, they’ll help Emmanuel and his classmates puzzle out the inauguration-day poem written for President Obama. In the classroom next door, a mother-daughter team will hand out sheets of white paper for airplanes. Each child will fold a plane, frame a hypothesis about how far it will fly, test the hypothesis, and write a lab report.

Meanwhile, three dozen men and women, some wearing scrubs, climb the slope to the temporary medical clinic they’ve organized. Already, scores of patients await them, filling rows of plastic chairs that line the clinic terrace. Down in the plaza, two volunteers from the business team are sitting under the shade of a peaked tent, discussing flour prices with some dozen women who make their living selling bread baked in backyard ovens.

To this hillside town, in a country where one in every four people lives in extreme poverty, the Yale volunteers have brought a week of summer school, the medical clinic, laborers to help construct a new community library and information technology center, college counseling for high school students, and a sports camp where the children will shoot baskets, play soccer and other field sports, and learn how to launch a Frisbee. Volunteers on the business team are advising not only the bakers, but also other women with tiny businesses: styling hair in one-seat home beauty parlors, selling fermented maize (kenkey) at the highway junction, or custom-sewing dresses copied from catalog photographs.

These volunteers are among 750 alumni and friends who, since 2008, have taken part in trips organized by the Yale Alumni Service Corps—a program of the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA). AYA has run service trips to China, Brazil, Mexico, and other countries, trips that have attracted people who had never before shown an interest in alumni activities, says lawyer Ellen McGinnis ’82, a former chair of the AYA board of governors: “A lot of them said they only opened the e-mail because the word ‘service’ was in the subject line.” For trip number eight, to Ghana, alumni (and friends and family) have come from Ontario and Denver; Los Angeles and New Haven; La Marsa, Tunisia; and Makawao, Hawaii. Each paid about $2,000, plus airfare, to take part.

Bringing together alumni to serve others “is a major sea change for alumni associations,” says Mark Dollhopf ’77, executive director of the AYA, who goes on nearly every service trip. Yale is pioneering this practice, he tells the volunteers gathered on day one in the Coconut Grove Beach Resort, where the group is staying. The trips are a way of connecting alumni to Yale. And through service, he says, we who enjoy the advantages of a fine education can “pay it forward” by helping others.

In his booming voice, Dollhopf addresses a question that must have occurred, in some form, to everyone in the room: “Some people ask, ‘Can you really change the world in a week?’ Yes you can, because it’s where you start.” On the first of two days of orientation, before our work starts in earnest, Dollhopf assures us that we will not be mere “voluntourists,” because partnerships with Ghana-based organizations will help sustain what the group sets in motion this week.

The main partner so far is AFS (originally the American Field Service), an international volunteer group best known for its student exchanges. AFS has brought two dozen Ghanaians, some of them college students, who are donating their time to help with translating, doing errands, and generally running the show. But when asked if Yale will return to Yamoransa next year to continue what we’re about to begin, Dollhopf says it’s too soon to tell.

An American friend who lives in Ghana tells me: “It’s easy to get things started here. The test is whether they’re going a year later.” For our project, the test case might be the new library and tech center that is under construction at one end of the Yamoransa plaza. Before our arrival, local volunteers have dug most of the foundation, laid half the concrete-block perimeter, and installed spikes of rebar where the columns will rise. (Money for materials came from both Yale volunteers and locals.) This week, alumni who usually study the tax code or sell real estate line up to carry concrete alongside Ghanaian volunteers. They all wait their turns for head pans filled with concrete. Then they plod uphill, the shallow steel bowls balanced on their heads. By week’s end, they will have finished the foundation and poured half the slab floor.

Just up the slope from the construction site sits another building, or rather half-building, consisting of a few rounds of cinderblock and skeletal rebar. It was begun as a church six years ago, then abandoned. Trees and bushes are growing in what would have been the sanctuary. Who will finish the technology center once we’ve gone?