AIDS/HIV Relief and Service in Ghana

Posted: March 16, 2013 in All Posts, Ghana

MU Student Pinki Thakker

by Jamin Shih

I have the privilege of being able to work with an amazing person who recently went on a trip to the southwest coastal region of Ghana to help with the epidemic of AIDS and HIV. Having worked with a Non-Governmental Organization by the name of the Needed Life Foundation, Pinki Thakker was given the fantastic opportunity to get an insider’s look at Ghana, how NGOs work in the region, and how AIDS and HIV have affected the population. She got to listen to personal stories of how individuals coped with being diagnosed with HIV, how it affected their lives and their families, and she also witnessed some of the cultural effects of being a foreigner in a country.

The organization that she worked with was stationed at a hospital and she and two other University of Missouri students helped out. “We provided free and confidential HIV and syphilis testing to pregnant women and their children in an effort to identify and take steps to reduce mother-to-child STD transmission,” said Thakker, “We actually got to help administer the tests (which was really scary for me at first since I have no health background!) and also help out around the hospital wherever needed.”

She also got to help individuals on a closer level by providing baby formula, clearing overgrown town areas with a machete, and listening to personal stories. She mentioned that the baby formula was especially important because HIV-infected mothers cannot breastfeed their children at the risk of transferring the disease to their infants. It was these little details that surprised me the most and truly opened my eyes to the vast implications of being HIV-infected.

However, there was a definitive language gap that the Thakker and the other MU students needed to work around. Due to the fact that many of the patients did not speak much English, and the trio of students knew minimal Fanti, the language of the area, they needed nurse translators to adequately maneuver around the communication gap. This also came along with a recognition that they were outsiders, and Thakker recalled some of the ways people treated them differently because they were from the United States.

Thakker assisting a patient.

“Honestly, it was a very interesting dynamic – to be seen as more of an authoritative voice simply because we were Western, when really these nurses probably had more medical training than all of us,” Thakker says.

This cultural dynamic surrounding individuals from out of Ghana was quite pervasive throughout their experience, even outside of a hospital or strictly professional setting.

“In Ghana there isn’t much racial/ethnic diversity save for tourists, students like us, and the very few foreigners who’ve made Ghana their home. So, whenever the kids would see us they would just run up to us and yell “Obruni obruni, how are you, I’m fine” (it was the song they all sang; obruni means ‘white person/foreigner’) In response we called them “obibini” (black person). But I never felt comfortable using that term.”

When she wasn’t working with her NGO, Thakker had the opportunity to experience some of the cultural differences present in Ghana that differentiates this beautiful country from the United States. Recounting stories of cultural norms, Thakker mentions, “You don’t do anything with your left hand. It’s considered dirty and unclean, so you have to do all of your hand transactions with your right hand like handing people money, shaking hands, etc.” She also adds, “You never pay what the shopkeeper first asks for – unless it’s written at like a restaurant (or any food item). Most things you’re expected to barter for.”

Thakker at a school in Ghana

When asked what the most jarring cultural difference she experienced from being a foreigner in Ghana was, Thakker replied, “Marriage proposals happen all the time. Some people wore rings to show they were already married. Most of us learned how to reject countless proposals politely since they happened so frequently. Also they’ll ask if you want an African boyfriend/girlfriend. But saying you have an American girlfriend/boyfriend back home might not help; they will often get closer to you and ask if you want an African one too.”

I had a wonderful time learning more about the culture of Ghana through someone that had actually been there, and I am eternally grateful for this privilege. The work that she did through an NGO is immensely inspiring and I think it is wonderful that our university offers trips that inspire both important service and aid opportunities, but also opportunities for cultural appreciation and learning.

If you are at all interested in this service opportunity or others like it here at MU, Thakker mentions that, “The study abroad to Cape Coast, Ghana is offered through the Office of Service Learning. We all had the option of choosing the Public Health or Education track.” In addition to it being a wonderful educational experience, it also was obvious how much of an impact it had on Thakker.

“The culture of Ghana though was just so very open and inviting… It was such an amazing experience!”

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