A World Apart
There are very few LSU students who know what it’s like to live without electricity or running water. But after spending a summer volunteering in two African countries, Honors College senior Claire Hanchey is one of those students.
“It was really interesting; the days got a lot shorter,” she said. “Getting up when the sun rises has a different meaning when you’re actually planning your day around it … (But) I don’t think the lack of electricity was nearly as inconvenient as the lack of water. At first, I was hesitant as to how it would work. But by the end of it, you just accepted that you’re filthy and that’s fine.”
A Tennessee native, Hanchey didn’t know anyone when she came to LSU, but she quickly made friends through her involvement in the Honors College and other extracurricular activities.
After traveling to China in the summer of 2009 with the Honors College, Hanchey attended the University of New Hampshire for a year, as part of the National Student Exchange (NSA) program. While at UNH, she had a paper on “The Failure of Drinking Age Laws” published in Perspectives, the school’s undergraduate sociological journal.
From New Hampshire, Hanchey traveled straight to Tanzania, Africa with Orphans of Kilimanjaro. Working with three other American college students, she studied Swahili and helped tutor over fifty children for three and a half weeks to prepare them for their national exams.
“I loved Tanzania,” she said. “It was the most beautiful and exotic place I’ve ever been … if the trees there were in pink and orange, it would have been in Dr. Seuss.”
Despite its idyllic scenery, Hanchey described Tanzania as a country plagued by corruption and poverty.
“Their school system makes absolutely no sense,” she said. “When they get into the upper levels, they have a standardized test every two years they have to pass to continue, so the age groups are so mixed up in each grade … All the tests are written in English, but the teachers don’t speak English, so the kids never learn it. In the poorer villages, you have people teaching who can’t pass the tests themselves, (and) they don’t have any textbooks or school supplies.”
After Tanzania, Hanchey flew to the opposite side of the continent to Ghana. Although Hanchey described Ghana as "desolate," she said her stay there was the most memorable part of her time in Africa, since she spent much more time with the orphans than she did while in Tanzania.
“Most of the people we interacted with were very warm,” she said. “It’s a very proud country, and a very proud culture … When they see someone from a western society, they say, ‘Come see this, I want you to see; we have nice things too.’”
In Ghana, she spent six weeks working with volunteers at Grace Masak Children’s Home, a secluded orphanage where she helped to prepare meals, gather firewood, teach class, and bathe the children — without electricity or running water.
“We would go over (to the orphanage) every morning and there would always be a child crying,” she said. “So we’d have someone teaching and someone else trying to comfort the crying child that we couldn’t understand, because they don’t speak English.”
Hanchey described Ghana’s educational system as informal and lacking structure, much like the orphanage where she worked.
“Officially, this lady who lived on site (was in charge) …The honest answer is that more often than not, she was sleeping somewhere, so we were in charge,” she said. “The kids never left the orphanage. We saw them fifteen hours a day, so we got really attached.”
Having to read by flashlight and shower outdoors in the rain were the least of the difficulties Hanchey faced in Ghana. During her time at the orphanage, two boys died of malaria and a young girl in her class was abducted during a raid.
“From the very beginning you’re just sitting there saying, ‘I wish I could do something, but I can’t fix it.’ That was kind of the underlying theme of the entire trip, especially with malaria. There was literally nothing we could do except make them as comfortable as possible … the severity of it is mostly based on your overall health, and these kids were very malnourished and dehydrated to begin with,” she said.
Hanchey said the hardest part of the experience was feeling helpless in the face of so much adversity.
“I had a really tough time knowing that no matter what we were doing while we were there, it wasn’t going to fix anything. I could sit here and play with (the orphans) and love them and show them that people cared, but at the end of six weeks, I was going to leave. Once I got attached, that realization was really hard.”
But Hanchey admits that her group was able to make a few lasting changes. Through fundraising, Hanchey and the other volunteers were able to purchase mosquito nets and a floor for the orphanage.
Hanchey is currently back in Baton Rouge, working at University Terrace Elementary School with the Kids Hope USA mentoring program and completing an Honors Thesis in sociology. She credits the Honors College for instilling in her a love of travel and a desire to experience other cultures.
“I don’t think I would have ever studied abroad this summer had it not been for the Gateway to China program,” said Hanchey. “I might have thought, ‘Oh, it would be great to go to Africa,’ but I don’t know if I would have ever given it any serious thought if the Honors College hadn’t pushed me … I think the Honors College has done a great job in terms of giving me variety and allowing me to explore.
After graduating in May, she hopes to pursue a Masters and Ph.D. in social work and continue working with children. While she doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to the orphanage in Ghana, she said she definitely plans to volunteer again.
“It’s an amazing experience,” she said. “I want to encourage other people to go. Not necessarily for a whole summer, or to a third-world country, but to go and see something outside your normal scope; (it’s) eye-opening… As soon as we rounded the corner every morning, there would be a group of kids waiting at the fence, and they would come running down the road to meet us. I’ll never forget what that felt like.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831