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A Helping Hand in Ghana
02 Oct 2007 14:03

She was affectionately known by the locals as “The white lady from London” but Jo Whaite is very definitely from Scotland (she’s never even been to London!) and is happy to forgive the mistake after spending five wonderful five weeks helping coach hockey in Ghana.

She recounts her adventure to Cathy Harris.

Life in a suburb near Accra, the capital of Ghana, could not have been in starker contrast to Dundee on the east coast of Scotland where Jo Whaite, 28, lives. So called winter months remain searingly hot and much of the population live in basic houses with no electricity or running water and certainly no television. “It is”, says Jo, “a desperate situation.”

The dream began Jo, who works as a co-ordinator for the Active Schools Programme decided to raise funds and head out to the west coast of Africa in a project for Community and Hockey Education hosted by Real Gap. She raised £1300 to spend on needy projects whilst she was there and stumped up £1900 from her own pocket to make sure she realised her dream. “I work in an area of deprivation “she explained, “ so there was no point going somewhere where everyone was rich. It seemed the perfect place for me to go to.”

Her local community also rallied round and Jo made the trip to Ghana with donated teaching materials and hockey equipment such as sticks, balls and other teaching aids. The Scotland striker Vikki Bunce donated a stick signed by Pauline Stott, who captained the Great Britain squad at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Dundee Wanderers donated enough strips for a team.

Arriving in Africa was a bit of a shock for Whaite who admits she quickly latched on to anyone who spoke English. “The signs on the way in from the airport were also quite revealing, very blunt and no-nonsense” she said. There are about 72 languages spoken in Ghana and I had a stab at a couple before learning some basic phrases which helped me through the experience. I really needed it for the coaching because on the whole the players spoke very broken English.”

Based in a suburb just outside Accra, a typical day saw her rise at 5.30am (it gets dark at about 6pm) take a session of coaching or training and then help out at the local school in the middle of the day. Travelling there each day from where I was staying was quite a slog but it was all worth it. Whilst she was there she helped build an extension on the school (adding six rooms and a nursery) and painted it’s exterior along with playing games with the youngest pupils and even digging which surprised the locals not used to seeing a “white lady” work like this.

The main focus of the project was to use hockey as a tool to get children back in to education. Whaite said: “If it wasn’t for the Ghana Hockey Association which pays their fees the children wouldn’t get to school. Coming from poor families, they choose to work or beg for food instead of going to school. Many of them work in the markets early in the morning and then head to the hockey pitch to train.”

What really gave Whaite satisfaction during her stay was coaching hockey.”The style of coaching was very different and players were used to long training exercises rather than shorter spells which I introduced. There is an artificial turf in Accra but we played on a community pitch of hard dirt, red baked earth situated behind the prison. They loved learning everything I taught them and I left a lot of coaching manuals to help them.

“I think my highlight was the many people who stopped by the pitch every day and sat in the sun watching what we were all doing. One day in particular, a man rather the worse for wear after a few too many drinks, came up and said: ”Thank you so much for all you have done”. I was so sorry worried as to what he might be approaching me for but his comments were amazing as I’d never met or spoken to him before and he’d obviously just been watching us every day.”

Hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in Ghana and according to Real Gap “has the potential to rival football in schools and clubs as a team sport.”

The children were incredible and to see them come out of their modest clutching their hockey sticks and all enthusiastic was so pleasing. I think what I’ve learned most of all is to be grateful for what you’ve got. I never let small things worry me now.”

Of course hockey equipment is still desperately needed with Whaite saying that the hard ground quickly wears them down and that some children only had half a stick. Goalkeeping equipment is also sorely lacking with prices simply out of reach for most locals.

And will she be returning? “I’d love to at some stage but can’t afford it at the moment” said Whaite. “And when I go back I’d love to see if the changes are still there and there is some development. It would be a dream to watch Ghana play – they’re all so dedicated and deserve to do well.”

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