One day in early December, Jessica Carter stopped what she was doing and looked around. She was in an open, dusty field. All around her were chattering, giggling children tussling over a beat-up soccer ball. Carter was in awe.
“I thought, ‘Jessica, you are in Africa playing soccer with kids right now!’” the Lodi High School graduate said on Thursday, shaking her head in disbelief.
While her family and friends were in the midst of the holiday shopping frenzy, Carter spent three weeks living and teaching in Hohoe, a town in Ghana, with a group of 10 volunteers assigned to schools, hospitals or microlending banks.
The 22-year-old had planned to attend graduate school at Santa Clara University this semester, but faced with a hefty tuition bill, she set her sights elsewhere.
Africa has been at the top of her traveling list for years. Between school and playing college volleyball, Carter didn’t have the time. She decided to take a semester off, save up some money and see how she could get there.
A quick Google search revealed Cross Cultural Solutions. It’s an organization that places volunteers in programs of their choice around the world. Carter was interested in working with children, so the program matched her with Musama LA Primary School.
Carter worked long shifts at the Cheesecake Factory in San Jose for months to come up with the nearly $5,000 tab for her journey.
“For grad school savings, I’m basically starting from scratch,” she said. “But it was so worth it.”
Before she left, there were a few things to take care of. She started taking weekly malaria pills two weeks ahead of time and got eight shots to protect her from yellow fever and typhoid. Carter’s visa arrived only four days before her plane took off. Packing was easy. She was advised that locals would consider her to be a prostitute if she wore shorts or skirts above the knee. Carter packed simple, durable clothes and relied on one beat up pair of navy blue canvas TOMS shoes.
Carter got on a plane in San Francisco the day after Thanksgiving. Traveling from California to Accra, the capital city of Ghana, took around 20 hours. From there it was a 4-hour drive to Hohoe, where she would live until Dec. 18.
A group of 26 kids, ranging in age from nine to 15, awaited her in a classroom with a head teacher she was meant to assist for a few hours each morning. Carter planned simple math lessons for them each day. They called her “madam” and were eager to stroke her long blond hair and touch her skin.
During breaks, the class played games outside. Carter said the kids loved to snatch her camera and take photos of each other. She surprised herself when she wasn’t upset over any dings or scratches it got. The group sang songs and played outside in the dust.
“They all knew ‘You Are My Sunshine,’” she said. “But I taught them ‘The Macarena.’”
In the afternoons, the volunteer group met up for lunch at home and set out for an afternoon adventure. These travels took Carter to a monkey sanctuary, to the second largest waterfall on the continent, mountain climbing, cloth weaving, and batik fabric printing.
One weekend trip was to visit an orphanage. Bless, a 17-year-old boy, stunned Carter with his future goals.
“I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up,” Carter recalled. “He said he wanted to be a pilot or engineer. And on holiday, he wanted to preach God’s word.”
The hardest part for Carter was the feeling of being cut off from her family.
A simple cellphone allowed her one 10-minute call a day, if she doled out her time. When she couldn’t talk to family, she turned to a journal she was advised to bring. It turned into a log of her daily discoveries.
She was shocked at how little the locals had in terms of material possessions, as well as by their positive and carefree attitudes.
“We think we need all this stuff, and we don’t,” she said.
Carter did her best to come with an open mind, but many things still surprised her.
Young girls do not grow out their hair until they finish school, in an effort to keep students looking the same and focused on their work.
Little did she know, Ghana was historically the No. 1 country for slave exports. A visit to Cape Coast gave her a first-person look at the docks where so many people were sent to live and work as slaves.
There weren’t lions or giraffes stalking the landscape. The most exotic creature Carter spied was a black king cobra in a gutter.
She connected well with her fellow volunteers. In the evenings, they swapped stories comparing their homelands of India, France, Canada and the eastern United States. Carter was particularly touched by a police officer from New Jersey with a habit of one-liners that stuck in her mind.
“He said, ‘Who am I to define poverty?’ These people were so happy,” she said. “And, ‘If you wanna do something, you should do it.’”
Africa left Carter with an impression of a blur of colors, singing and dancing, and warm locals with open arms. Boarding the plane back home, she said, was bittersweet.
“I miss my kids,” she said.
Now that she’s stateside, Carter plans to pick up her plan for graduate school by studying counseling at Chadron State University in Nebraska, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.