After three months in Ghana, a British volunteer is forced to abandon his post and return home when the pandemic strikes.
The walls of the Honeysuckle Pub provide a sanctuary from the burning red dust of the streets outside. In here, Westerners come for a break from the challenges of Accra. The frosty beer glasses and blasting air conditioning offer a welcome respite from the ceaseless scorching of the Ghanaian sun.
Every Wednesday night, it became my sanctuary. Joining up with American students and European volunteers, we’d compete in a quintessentially British pub quiz. Surrounded by wooden walls lined with old artwork and television screens, it was a small reminder of the home I’d not seen in months.
The opportunity to relocate to Africa came out of nowhere. Working with a volunteer organization, I was to be stationed in Ghana and Kenya for a year, telling the stories of both locals and travelers. It was all paid for. It was a dream.
The quiz went to plan. On the British side: four volunteers whose team name was “Nathan,” in honor of a friend who’d recently returned home. Batting for the Americans: a team cunningly named “Better Than Nathan,” who sought to challenge the reigning champions.
Despite being British, I defected to the Americans. They seemed confident, ready to ride the wave to victory. We over-performed in the “Guess That Country” round, giving us an early lead. The clincher, though, was the “Biblical Figures” round, where the Americans proved their worth.
We won convincingly and were awarded pub vouchers for next week’s night out. The vouchers, however, were never used.
The Uber pulled up, and I got in alone. It was quite a journey back to my host accommodation. We coasted past the stunning stretches of golden sands that line Ghana’s shoreline. A little tipsy, high on victory, and feeling great after a fun night out, I sat back and grinned to myself.
Ghana, you beautiful, wonderful country.
Approaching the suburbs of Accra is a little more intimidating. The roads are cracked and crumbling, the streetlights non-existent. We slowed, and I looked out the window to see why. There stood a police officer, asking me to step out.
“Any drugs?” he asked genuinely, as if expecting me to say yes.
“Nope. All you’ll find is my well-deserved prize,” I responded, with the arrogance of someone who wasn’t at risk of spending the night in a Ghanaian jail cell.
After a thorough search, we were allowed to continue home.
The next morning, I sauntered down the dirt road to my office. It only takes two minutes, but it’s somewhat treacherous. The street is lined on either side with deep open sewers that you don’t want to get too close to. Stray too far, though, and you’re at risk of being hit by a car, a goat, a cow, or a local with a mountain of fruit on their head.
I arrived at the tall metal gate, said hello to Rex (the large black and red lizard who lives there), and went inside, eager to write my stories. Before work began, my phone beeped with a message.
“We need to talk.” It was one of the girls from my pub quiz group.
“Have you heard about the Finnish ambassador? He’s the first person in Ghana to have tested positive for Covid. The thing is, I was at a party with him on Tuesday. We shared food.”
At this point, Covid was fiercely engulfing the European continent. Italy was in full lockdown, with other countries quickly following suit. Ghana had felt somewhat isolated from this virus, but now the threat was real.
Both my house and office had no running water, making proper hygiene a difficult task.
Once my superiors learned of the situation, the whole company went into panic mode. After 27 years of sending volunteers around the world, this suddenly became impossible. Borders were closing; customers were cancelling their trips; my volunteer friends in Ghana were all put on the first plane home.
I’d been in Ghana for three months and was just starting to settle in properly; to fall in love. Which is probably why the realization that it was time to leave felt like my heart was breaking.
All work stopped as the team frantically began searching for my flight back to England. There were others doing my job across the world, all trying to get help, too. One of my colleagues ended up sleeping outside the French embassy in Cambodia, begging for them to allow him back to his homeland. It was chaos, but safety was paramount.
After spending a month’s wages on a flight home via Dubai (one of the few airports that allowed transfers), it was time to pack up and leave.
“So, I have to go. Because of the virus,” I told my host mother, choking up a little.
Despite her typical Ghanaian stoicism, her eyes softened and moistened. They were complemented by an understanding smile, though; a relief that I’d be safe and so would Ghana, as long as we all just went home and stopped traveling.
However, my career entirely depended upon travel. When that stopped—suddenly and unexpectedly—my company all but collapsed. My return home and into lockdown meant the end of my year-long African adventure. It meant an end to the job I’d carried out every day with passion and excitement.
I’d never get to do the canopy walk in the Ghanaian jungle, nor photograph a lion on the plains of Kenya. There was no doubting the seriousness of my decision to leave.
Walking out the front gate, I was instantly met by a gang of bouncy, wide-grinned children. They hugged me with a familiar tightness, though this time, they didn’t know they’d never see me again. I thought it best not to tell them.
A taxi pulled up, and I got in the back.
When you leave this fast, you don’t have time to process it. The driver swung the vehicle around, the front right wheel almost falling into the open sewer. He pressed on the gas and…
I watched a motorbike fly across the bonnet in one direction as the two riders slid in the opposite, face-first across the burning, red-rocked road. Then, they got up, seemingly unhurt.
I sighed, “Ah, Ghana. I’m sure gonna miss you.”
Those three months contributed to the most meaningful, intense, chaotic, exciting, and welcoming trip I’ve ever had. As my taxi drove the motorcyclist to the police station (rather than taking me to the airport), it hit me how lucky I was.
I’d been immersed in a wonderful culture that, for all its challenges, was experiencing rapid development through the support of volunteers. Covid didn’t just mean an end to my job but an end to the interconnectedness that has helped countries like Ghana and Kenya to thrive.
The vaccine is here. Let’s hope we can get back to a world that mixes together, helps each other, and learns from each other.
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