How An Internship With An NGO In Ghana Changed My Career Perspective

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This time last year I was sitting in a travel clinic listening to a doctor outline the shots she was about to give me in preparation for my trip to Ghana, and I started bawling as soon as she told me about the optional rabies shot. She told me it wasn’t necessary and most people travelling there don’t choose to get it.

“What if a monkey falls out of a tree and licks my neck?” I sobbed. She somehow managed to answer my question seriously and gave me a grape juice box to calm me down. I was planning to go to West Africa ALONE and had to be consoled by my doctor and the same brand of juice box that I drank in grade 1? How embarrassing.

However, despite this giant (and hopefully endearing?) moment of weakness, I made it to Africa (and did not get rabies).

I was embarking upon an unpaid internship as a journalist for an organization called Trashy Bags – an NGO working to eliminate the plastic waste issue in Ghana.

Writing and eco-friendliness? My two favourite things. It was the perfect opportunity. It was also insanely far away. It was scary. It was going to cost a ton of money and make me nothing.

As my head told me to stay home and get a job, my heart yelled a tad louder and told me to throw caution to the wind and pack my bags. After thinking about it for weeks on end and discussing it with my parents, friends and strangers in line at Pizza Pizza, I signed up for what would become the best experience of my life so far.

Upon my arrival, I came to spend my days lying on the workshop floor flattening water sachets, cutting fabric, writing blog entries and talking with the workers. They had a radio playing and, over the sound of sewing machines, we would sing along and get to know each other. I learned about a new place. I lived a different lifestyle and, at the risk of sounding cliche, realized what was actually important to me.

I missed my friends and family. I did not miss Tetris or creeping Justin Bieber or chicken wing Tuesday. As someone who is obsessed with time and making the most of it, this was an integral lesson for me to learn. I did not have to attend amazing social events everyday. I simply wanted  to spend time with people I was close to.

The internship itself was not perfect. I did not write as much as I was hoping to. However, my journal became more full in a week than my journal at home had in a year. I grew as a writer simply from being in Africa.

Although it was not an internship chock-full of writing, it was full of many unexpected opportunities. I got the chance to deliver school presentations regarding environmental awareness. I attended school carnivals to set up displays and speak with students about what Trashy Bags stood for.

In turn, this internship showed me what mattered to me career-wise. I was so passionate about what Trashy Bags represented.

For one week we were stationed in a mall in the city of Accra selling Trashy Bags products and, even though sitting in the mall was not what I had envisioned while planning my Africa trip, it did not bother me in the least. I wanted to see Trashy Bags succeed and I was more than happy to help it do so. This time in the mall was very eye-opening to the fact that the concept of “being green” was something that had not yet reached “cool” status in Ghana the way it has in North America.

This only inspired me more – especially after returning home and working in a sales position for a retail company. I didn’t care if people liked our products or chose to purchase them. I had no desire to drive my sales. I saw in myself how much happier and more fulfilled I had felt in Africa, and this fact alone is what continued to drive me all year as endless doors slammed in my face to keep looking for a job that meant something to me.

I don’t have a five-year plan and I still don’t know what my dream job is, but I do know that I need a job that engages me and stands for something I believe in. I also know that going to Ghana allowed me to gain skills I never had before.

In the past, if I missed a bus or found myself lost or didn’t know where to find information for my essay, I was the one who would immediately panic, cry and envision a life of endless failure. I don’t do this anymore. I stopped panicking about being lost because I was inevitably always lost. Nothing was familiar and there was nothing I could do about it, so I naturally learned how to deal with this barrier by going with the flow and accepting that things will work out. This skill is one of the main reasons not knowing what my future holds no longer terrifies me.

I was in Ghana for one short, unpaid month, but in this month I learned more than I did in nine months of paid retail work. Dearest Trashy Bags? I’m Ghana remember you for a long time.

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About the author

Leah Ruehlicke works in video production, living in a tiny apartment in Toronto with bad water pressure and an amazing book collection. Follow her on @LeahRuehlicke.