Monday, February 22, 2010

I think it's time I had another child...

Yes, that’s not a typo. I already have three gorgeous sons but after visiting my sponsor child, Elizabeth, during a recent trip to Ghana I have now made the decision to add another child to my brood.

After having sponsored Elizabeth since she was four and having watched her grow in yearly updates and photographs from World Vision, I was excited to finally meet her in person and also to meet her family. However, what I hadn't anticipated in preparing for my visit to Ghana was how moved I would be by the World Vision staff themselves.

I have been sponsoring Elizabeth for over six years now and, in all honesty, I don't even notice the money come out of my bank account. It is less than I spend on tram tickets each day, less than the coffee I buy at the café down the street, less even than the spare change that rolls around the bottom of my car for parking meters. Sponsoring Elizabeth costs just a little over a dollar a day. It seems like almost nothing and, at times, I wondered whether my meagre contribution could possibly be making any difference. But it has. And I was able to see that difference first-hand.

I was picked up early Monday morning by Raphael, full-time driver and mechanic for World Vision in Takoradi, which is two hours away from Accra, the capital of Ghana. We chatted a little about his life: he was born in the North of Ghana, grew up in a mud hut and had enrolled in an engineering course at university, which he had to pull out of when his father died so that he could get a job to support his mother and siblings. He told me that he now has three daughters, but when he showed me a photograph of his family, there was also a little boy in the picture.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked, ever curious.
‘Oh, he’s the son of my neighbour,’ Raphael replied. ‘We look after him because his parents can’t afford to.’
‘Is that common?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ Raphael replied. ‘If you have money left over after feeding your own family, you take in another child. We just pay for his food and schooling, that's all.’

This was the first of many humbling conversations I was to have with Raphael that day.

We arrived at the World Vision office just outside Takoradi where I was greeted like royalty. Christina, the head of the Ahanta West Project, sat me down in the boardroom and apologised that as there was no electricity that morning, she wouldn't be able to show me the power-point presentation she had prepared. Fortunately, she had had the foresight to print it out a few days earlier and sat down next to me and went through the print-out, showing me exactly where all the money I had donated (along with other sponsors for the area, all Australian) had been spent. For almost an hour, seated in the boardroom with all the other local World Vision staff, Christina went through the statistics of how much the community of Ahanta West had been improved over the last twelve years that World Vision had been in the area.

I will pause here to explain something I had already been aware of but many other sponsors may not know; the money I donate in Elizabeth’s name goes into a pool for her whole community rather than directly to her as an individual. In this way, the World Vision staff decide how it can best benefit the largest number of people. Their motto is that you can give a man a fish and he will not starve for a day, but if you teach him to fish he will eat for a lifetime. So, naturally, a large part of the money is spent on education. This education ranges from teaching mothers about nutrition through to how to avoid AIDS (ie; it does not come from the gods) and, most importantly, educating the next generation of children. But there are practical things the World Vision staff put into place, too, before the children can even be educated. In the past, Elizabeth and her friends couldn’t go to school because they had to walk for miles to fetch water, which was often polluted anyway causing illness and disease. Now their village has a well, which provides fresh water for the whole community and World Vision has also provided vaccinations for all the children against major diseases.

Christina went through the statistics with me methodically, continuously thanking me for my small part in changing the lives of this entire community. She also explained that in October this year the community would be considered self-sufficient and able to fend for themselves without the continuing support of World Vision.

After our board meeting, it was off to meet Elizabeth. We drove to her school, which consisted of three basic buildings in a field of flattened dirt. Obviously, our arrival caused much excitement and disruption throughout the whole school, and children ran to the windows to peer out at us. I have to say I was very impressed with how healthy all the children looked, and at how beautifully clean and ironed their uniforms were. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have often sent my children off to school with runny noses and crumpled clothing, looking far worse than any of these children did.

Elizabeth’s classroom consisted of two long rows of desks with approximately fifty children seated around them. The teacher was in the middle of an English grammar lesson when we arrived, writing on an old blackboard in chalk. I was amazed to see that the students didn't appear to even have pens or paper so were reciting everything he said by rote. Elizabeth and I were told to stand at the front of the room with the teacher and had hundreds of photos taken while I donated pencils, paints and posters (all bought from my local two-dollar shop, as suggested by the Australian World Vision staff). Elizabeth stood beside me like a startled rabbit, doing her best to smile for the cameras as instructed. After signing the school visitor's book with great ceremony, the World Vision staff took me, Elizabeth and her older sister (who is also a sponsored child) back to their community to meet her family.

Before I was allowed to meet her family I had to meet with the community chief to ask for his permission. The chief was away that day so four other people who represented him received us instead. We sat in a room, all the officials and Elizabeth and I, and one by one stated our name and purpose and also a little about ourselves. This was translated not only for my behalf but also for Christina and her staff as the Ahanta West community speak only the language of the area.

Finally, after the all formalities were finished, and prayers were given, we were taken to sit in front of Elizabeth’s house and meet her family. Once again, we went around the circle, explaining who we were and our relationship to Elizabeth and said a few more prayers (me with my eyes closed, pretending to know what I was doing). I was introduced to everyone as Elizabeth’s ‘mother’, which made me feel awkward, as Elizabeth’s own mother was there, as well as her grandmother and great-grandmother. But when her mother called me ‘sister’ and my own sons Elizabeth’s ‘brothers’, I understood the symbolism of the title and its deeper meaning.

‘How do they feel about me swanning into their community, like some rich white woman, handing out presents?’ I asked Raphael later when I had finished the tour of the area, seen the water pump World Vision had put in and had hundreds more photos taken with Elizabeth and her extended family. ‘Do they, you know, feel resentful or patronised by me being here? Is there any stigma attached to being a sponsored child for Elizabeth and her family?’
‘No,’ Raphael answered, genuinely shocked. ‘It’s just normal. They are just grateful to you. After all, in Ghana if you have money you share it.’

Of everything I heard that day, this is the comment that moved me the most. Of course. It really is as simple as that. If you have money, you share it. If Raphael can do it earning less than a hundred dollars a month as a driver and mechanic, it is a given that I should do it too. Already the little I donate feels like nothing to me but means everything to the World Vision staff in Takoradi, as they reminded me often that day. Their work in these communities is completely funded by people like myself, lots of little donations that add up to make a difference. Enough of a difference that in only twelve years a severely poverty-stricken community, completely dependent on World Vision to survive, has now become self-sufficient, proud and strong. On less than I spend on coffees.

Now that I know for certain that my money is not just a drop in a vast ocean of poverty, I am going to sponsor another child. I have seen with my own eyes how much it can help. And, even if you have never have the fortune to meet your own sponsor child as I did, you can take it from me that somewhere in the world someone is grateful for your existence, which is sometimes more than we can say for our own children!

Go on, you know you want to. It's so easy you don't even need to get up from your desk. Plus, if you need any more incentive, you know you can claim it as a tax deduction.

Photo above: Theresa (Child Sponsor Co-ordinator), Me and Raphael.
Photo below: I am in the middle (easy to spot) Elizabeth is on my left in the brown school uniform, then her mother and uncle next to her. Christina is on my far left in the white shirt. On my right is Elizabeth's grandfather, and on his right is her grandmother. The others in the photo are other World Vision staff or other people who live in the Ahanta West community.


  1. SAlly, how fascinating! You've certainly had an interesting and rewarding time in Ghana. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Thank you for reading about it! :-)

  3. I read this in The Age today and thought it was fantastic. People need a reminder of the good that charities like World Vision really can do, but also that none of it is possible unless people contribute. As Raphael said... if you have money, you share it.

  4. Thanks Laura! I really appreciate your comment. I have been so thrilled at what a great response the piece has received so far.

  5. So great to read this, I hope people take your advice and sponsor a child. I recently visited my parents' sponsor child in Uganda. My parents have sponsored him since Francis and I were both 3 years old. We're both 20 now so he's more of a sponsor "man", but it was incredible to meet him. I was absolutely amazed at the brilliant work World Vision had done in his community. Francis and his family were so grateful for the support, too. I'm glad to hear you also had such a positive experience. Good on you for sharing :)

  6. That's great to hear, Eleanor, thanks so much for letting me know! It really is quite an amazing experience to meet someone you have never met yet obviously been such a formative part of their life.
    I have a very close friend from South Africa (who grew up during the apartheid years) who once told me that when he was only ten, he was doing a night shift in a factory to pay for his school fees. Naturally, he could barely stay awake in class. The wife of the factory owner discovered this and from then on paid all his tuition fees so he could attend school full-time. Now he is a successful musician in Melbourne, but he has never forgotten the part she played in his early life. Even though it was probably not more than pocket money for her.

  7. Wow, that is such a great story. It's amazing the affect we can have on people's lives by doing so little. Small change to us equals a huge change for others. I started sponsoring a child myself after seeing the amazing things that my parents' support enabled for Francis and his community. I hope to meet her one day. Hopefully you will get a chance to meet your new sponsored child some day too!

  8. I hope so too, Eleanor. My new sponsored child, Jaamini, lives in Sri Lanka. I would have really like to take my sons to meet Elizabeth but having never been to Africa I wasn't sure what to expect, so decided to go on my own the first time. Also, I didn't want to have to fill them up with all the vaccinations I had to take for such a short trip - I've only just taken my last anti-malarial today - four weeks after getting back from Ghana! Yuck!
    So, I'm very encouraged that you got to meet Francis when you were old enough to travel on your own. Perhaps that's something my sons might do too. In any case, Sri Lanka is much closer than Ghana so maybe in a few years' time I will take my boys to meet Jaamini. Who knows? :-)

  9. Thank you for sharing your sponsorship story with us Sally. Nearly six years ago my two children gave me the most wonderful Mother's Day gift ever. They sponsored a little 5 year-old girl from Ghana for me. We have continued to sponsor her and correspond, but we too would love to visit her home and meet her. My children may have the opportunity to do exactly that next winter when they travel abroad for college. It is good to know that you had such a wonderful experience and received so much more than we give.

    1. Hi Kathy,
      Gosh, what thoughtful children you have! And what a lovely experience that would be for them to be able to meet your sponsor child. Thank you for commenting on this article - it was a lovely surprise to hear from someone almost two years down the track!

  10. Well done, Sally, by posting this you are normalising in the west what Raphael has articulated as normal in Ghana. Instead of donating as a private act, more of us need to shout out about it, because that has the known effect of encouraging others to do the same.
    Peter Singer writes about this too, (see and his The Life You Can Save pledge is about making that regular donation mainstream.
    Best wishes to you and to all who do as you do:)

    1. Thanks Lisa - yes, I heard Peter Singer speak at a festival the year before I travelled to Ghana. He was very inspiring and definitely encouraged me to write this piece. I have made the pledge and have encouraged others to do it, too. Great that you mention it here. In the article that was published in the Age, I added some links for readers, including the Life You Can Save link.