I’ve been running a school in Ghana as a volunteer for the last nine years after selling my business – customising Harley-Davidson motorcycles – and retiring when I was 54.
I originally trained as a structural draughts woman but my husband was a car dealer so I went back to work running the service department for him while my three boys were in school. Later, when we divorced, I sold my share of the business to him.
I ended up getting into the motorbike business by default. I invested in it and then eventually bought the shop. I had no knowledge of how to run a bike shop and was, I think, the only woman in Australia running that kind of business. It was quite an experience and I met a whole new type of clientele.
When I retired, I didn’t want to just sit around and play golf and lunch with the ladies. I had always wanted to travel and thought, if I travelled and did volunteer work overseas, I could meet people and do some good.
I went to South America and volunteered for four months at a Mother Teresa hospice and really enjoyed the experience. I came back to Sydney and looked for volunteer work but couldn’t find anything without having to have certificates for this and certificates for that, so I volunteered in Africa. I eventually went to work in a shelter for abused children in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and the kids were terrific.
On my last weekend there, I went away with a group of volunteers and the tour guide was a young Ghanaian guy, Nicholas, who’d started an orphanage. He was telling me about it and then asked if I’d be interested in coming back to help. I said, “I don’t know. It’s so far from Sydney but I’ll think about it.”
I was looking for a project, I suppose, so I went back to help at the orphanage. Nine years later, I’m still there. About five years ago we changed the orphanage to Hohoe Charity School, a free school for orphaned and underprivileged children. It has 200 students and 12 boarders and runs from kindergarten to the end of junior high school, though we’re now funding students into senior high school. I fund a lot of it myself and I raise money when I can, but I’m not very good at that.
The school is on the outskirts of Hohoe, which is four hours from Accra. We’re in a subsistence farming area and there are no other white people living nearby. There’s no social life, you don’t have your family. You can’t walk down the road and have a cup of coffee. That just doesn’t exist.
It’s a totally different life. We don’t have water all the time, so I’m far more aware of how important water is, and the fact you touch the light switch and have light in Sydney – that’s not a given there. In Hohoe I stay at the school. I think my living standard is quite good. I have a nice room with a tiled floor and a ceiling fan, which is a necessity because the heat is extreme.
And I’ve got a fridge – the basics.
I’ve developed an interest in bird life, which I never thought I would. On the weekends, a couple of kids and I will go out into the bush in the early morning, looking for birds. I’ve tried to take good photographs and that’s become an interest, too. Now the kids are interested in that as well.
You couldn’t be a princess and do this. I think that’s one of my strengths – I’m very down to earth and tenacious. When it gets tough, I just get more determined which is why, after nine years, I’m still involved. It’s not easy. You take two steps forward, two steps back. I’m practical and a good organiser, so I realise I can help. I don’t do it for any higher ideal.
If there was a coup tomorrow and I got thrown out of the country, I could take satisfaction from the fact that a couple of hundred of children have learnt to read and write because I was there.
Three years ago, my first group of students finished junior high and did their final exam. Two of our boys gained top marks and got into the best senior high school in our region, and this year they are doing well enough to go to university. I’ll never forget when one of the boys told me his results. I just burst into tears. I was so thrilled.
I’ve long felt I have two homes, Ghana and Sydney, but I’ve recently become a grandmother so I’m pulling back a little from the school. I’m still involved, but my next challenge is building something in Sydney that’s just as fulfilling.
As told to Jackie Dent
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