Nicole Gunawansa '14

Nicole Gunawansa is a neuroscience major from Portsmouth, Va. She used her Johnson Opportunity Grant to work at both the Apostolic Academy and the Kaneshie Polyclinic in Ghana.


My trip to the Nema area of Accra was one of the most memorable experiences of my summer internship in Ghana. Nema is a slum. Houses are built out of scrap pieces of metal, proper irrigation is not a reality or even a topic of conversation, electricity is for the few who are fortunate, and children run alongside open streams of sewage. I stepped into a totally different world when I crossed one of the busiest highways in Accra--a world that I had only ever witnessed on a television screen, and it scared me. Never before had I encountered such extreme poverty. I had no clue how to handle the deprivation that I saw before me.

The first two weeks of my internship focused on educating children in English at Apostolic Academy. For two weeks I woke up at the crack of dawn and traveled 45 minutes out of the capital into the slum of Ashaiman. Within Ashaiman, the Apostolic Academy stands as a small beacon of hope for the children who attend, as it provides them with the opportunity to learn--an option that is not available for many children, especially those in northern Ghana. However, the school itself and the education being provided at there are not ideal: the students do not have adequate learning supplies, a safe courtyard that is properly fenced off from chaotic traffic or even dedicated teachers. In order to further the student's knowledge of the English language, I floated to the classrooms of the older students during free periods and taught them about proper grammar and paragraph structure. The rest of my time was spent teaching the alphabet to the nursery and kindergarten kids, ranging from two to 10 years old. Lunch period and afternoon recess quickly became my salvation, as the stress and trials of teaching that I never anticipated set in. But by the end of my visit, the satisfaction of the kids' progress offset the frustration of obstacles that came along the way.

Following my time at the school, I worked in the Ghanaian medical field for six weeks at Kaneshie Polyclinic. While at the clinic, I rotated through four different departments--Recovery, Labor/Maternity, Theater and Community Health/Antenatal--while also getting a chance to learn about the National Health Insurance system. My days consisted of shuffling behind the nurses, midwives and doctors to whom I was assigned for the week while asking a plethora of questions about the clinic's resources, medical procedures, the health care system and the poverty levels of the patients. I quickly learned that about 70 percent of the patients were suffering from ailments caused by insufficient resources or education. Malnourishment and malaria were common, as were gastrointestinal problems related to bad hygiene and infections from untreated injuries. In conversations with patients, I learned about both the triumphs and tribulations the individuals who frequent the facility.

My rotation with the community health nurses was the most eye-opening of my clinic experience, as I was able to witness the living conditions of the patients. In my two weeks out in the "field," I went into two different communities, at times going door-to-door, and helped advise expecting and new mothers on the importance of appropriate health care (i.e. nutrition and vaccination) for their young children. I was able to observe detrimental factors associated with poverty such as lack public sanitation, lack of safe and affordable housing, substance abuse and general apathy. While witnessing the conditions in those communities was difficult and heartbreaking, I was happy to have the opportunity, as it resulted in a more educational internship and an in-depth understanding of the "typical" Ghanaian patient.

My knowledge of international development and poverty relief, both educational and medical, grew tremendously this summer. Surrounded by such extreme poverty, I was immediately assaulted by the grave reality that many average Ghanaians face on a daily basis. I now understand the immense, ever-present challenges associated with living in Ghana, and hope that my seemingly small efforts made a difference by increasing people's faith in humanitarian kindness and allowing them to move forward in life with a renewed sense of hopefulness.