Ghana, West Africa
Aussie families are increasingly heading overseas to reap the benefits of international mining. But what's it really like? Mining Family Matters women spill the beans on living and working across the globe ...
By expat mum Annabel Williams
From 2008 to 2011, I lived in a remote mining compound in Ghana with my husband and two daughters, aged three and eight. My husband was offered a three-year contract with a mining company called Newmont, and as we had already moved around a lot for various mining jobs, this didn’t seem too daunting for us. The decision was made easier by the fact that we already had friends living there, who provided us with a lot of information on what we could expect.
My husband went to Ghana for a site visit and interview and I decided to stay behind with our daughters, as I trusted him to make the final decision. We were already living in a remote mining town in the Pilbara in WA, so I knew that I could make the move to another remote place. The main incentive for us was that Newmont offered generous travelling allowances and we saw it as a chance to save money as most living expenses would be covered by the company. English is the official language in Ghana so we didn’t have to worry about learning a new one (although Ghanaians have many tribal languages that they use as well).
The move itself was relatively smooth, with the company organising the removalists and flights and giving us a standard allowance to cover the cost of selling our car. We didn’t need to sell or rent out our house as we were living in company accommodation in the Pilbara and our house in Brisbane was already tenanted. Finding a place for the cat was another matter! Luckily we were rescued by some friends who looked after her for the time we were away. Newmont sent us to Sydney for a few days to get our visas, have inoculations and say goodbye to family, then we were off.
To reach the company compound in Ghana (in an area called Ahafo) was a one-hour flight from the capital, Accra, followed by a one-hour drive. By road it’s about eight hours, and being a third-world country, the roads are in a pretty bad state. For me, this proved to be the most difficult part of living where we were – we had five breaks per year (annual leave and four shorter ones) and sometimes travelled to Accra in between to buy food, so we had to make this trip regularly. The company had a guest house in Accra where employees and their families could stay on their way to and from trips overseas, and if they wanted to do some shopping or see a doctor.
We initially lived in a three-bedroom house and moved to a newly built four-bedroom house. There were about 70 families living in the compound, comprising expats from all around the world and Ghanaians. The houses were all comfortable and fully furnished, with the notable exception of dishwashers! Luckily, you could choose to have a housekeeper and we had a lovely Ghanaian lady called Theresa who worked for us every weekday from 8-3 and half Saturday.
Ghana is relatively stable compared to other African countries in terms of politics and social issues, so we felt safe in Ahafo and Accra. My impression of Ghanaians is that they are mostly very friendly and relaxed. Many are Christians and this seemed to have a bearing on their general approach to life and each other. There was wire around the compound and security guards patrolled the perimeter, but we never felt threatened. Also, the company monitored the situation to make sure that all employees were safe travelling to and from Accra, or around Ghana.
There was a new school in the compound, built by Newmont, with around 60 Ghanaian and expat children, up to but not including high school. Employees with high school children could home school or were given an allowance to send their children to boarding school. The school was incredibly well resourced in terms of computers, books and all kinds of academic and sporting equipment. Each class had one Ghanian and one expat teacher, so there was a very high teacher to student ratio, very much to the kids’ advantage! Being an accredited International School, the curriculum was mixed, although our girls had no problems at all when they returned to school in Australia, and were actually a bit ahead in some areas, possibly from the small class sizes and being mixed in with older children, when they were in Ghana. The girls loved their time at the school and still miss it.
The ladies, or "spouses", as we were called, kept ourselves busy in different ways. In terms of facilities, there was a well-equipped gym, a pool, tennis and squash courts, a sewing room and clubhouse. There were shopping trips to local markets, lunches, fundraising, yoga, cycling etc. Each employee and their spouse were given the option of a study allowance of US $5000 by Newmont, so I chose to put this towards completing an online course through a university in Australia. As I had a housekeeper and both girls at school, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to do some study. Luckily there was wi-fi set up at the compound, although not surprisingly this could be intermittent, which caused a few headaches! A fair amount of our time was also spent in making travel bookings for breaks.
In terms of food, there was a small shop in the compound that offered a very small variety compared to what we’re used to here. Ghanaians have a different diet to most of the expats, so the food we ate was imported and therefore expensive. If you wanted more variety, you had to fly to Accra and buy from a few small supermarkets and shops there. Meat had to be frozen overnight in the guesthouse freezer and taken in an esky on the plane with the rest travelling back by truck. It was great to be able to experience Ghanaian food, but we looked forward to a bigger variety and something a bit more familiar when we went on breaks to other countries. Now that we’re back in Australia, I love going to the supermarket!
Health-wise, there was a clinic at the nearby mine site with doctors from South Africa to treat expats. In cases of medical emergencies or tests, expats were generally sent by the company to South Africa, London, or in some cases, back to their home countries. Malaria was a constant threat, not only to your health but to your lifestyle – long clothes and insect repellent were necessary after dark if you were going outside, so for us Aussies who like our night-time barbeques, this was a blow! My family chose to take an anti-malarial medication, but this was not compulsory and many expats chose not to. If someone showed signs of having malaria, they could be tested immediately and treated.
So what were the plusses and minuses? The plusses: travelling to some amazing places, getting to know expats from other countries, experiencing the Ghanaian culture, and above all, paying off the mortgage! The minuses: the isolation, living in a small compound, being so far from family and friends, the malaria, missing the lifestyle in Australia. Above all, we now realise just how lucky we are in this country.
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Ever worked and/or lived overseas for an international mining company? We'd love to hear your story!