Ghana man tells of hunger, hope - Catholic Courier

Ghana man tells of hunger, hope

ROCHESTER — Thomas Awiapo has an outgoing personality and ready smile, yet there’s one part of lecturing at schools in the United States that proves painful for him. Too many times, he sees unfinished lunch food and milk cartons end up in garbage containers.

“It breaks your heart,” Awiapo remarked, adding that he gets upset when young people complain about their meals because “I come from a place where children cry because there’s nothing to eat.”

In fact, if this unwanted food had been available for Awiapo’s two younger brothers, they might still be alive today.

Awiapo recently shared his difficult past at diocesan parishes and schools, giving 20 lectures in all from March 22 to 29. His appearances were coordinated by the diocesan Catholic Relief Services office.

He told the Courier that he seeks not to chastise Americans, but enlighten them about needs in his native Ghana. He also noted the good that can be done by supporting CRS, the agency that helped turn his life around and for which he now works.

Awiapo estimated that he is 40 years old, but doesn’t know his exact age because in his childhood village of Wiaga “parents cannot read or write, and nobody requires a date of birth for anything.” Indeed, there were much more pressing issues than his birth date in the severely impoverished African community.

“We had no running water, electricity, hospital — nothing,” Awiapo said.

There was little food, either. His parents died at early ages, and he fought for food among his three brothers. Two of them did not survive.

“I watched my brothers die,” he said.

Little wonder, then, that he has a succinct reply for those who ask how he can celebrate his birthday without knowing a date of birth: “I celebrate life.”

Awiapo’s path to a better life began after a school was established in his region through Operation Rice Bowl, a Lenten CRS program that helps fund development projects around the world. Awiapo rejected education at first: “I was not interested in school, not attracted in any way.”

But the food, which he could only get by attending school, was attractive.

“It was the only place you could find a snack or a lunch,” he said. “They fooled me to go to school.”

Awiapo would often sneak out once he had eaten. This backfired when students who scored highest on exams would receive applause, whereas he was often among the lowest and would get booed. Finally he put his mind to doing well, and got a prize and ovation: “Oh, I was so proud of that.”

He became committed to making the 10-mile walk to school, often under a hot sun. One day he was adjusting his shoes made of cardboard when a missionary priest came across him. The priest invited him back to the mission and gave him a shirt and shoes: “This was like Christmas. I slept with my shoes in my hands.”

Around this time he also was positively influenced by Catholic missionaries in his village that staffed a health clinic.

“I felt like it was a God moment for me,” he said, adding that he opts to praise God for those blessings rather than be bitter about his hardships.

“God is so nice to me. God cried and mourned with me,” he said. “In place of my parents he put people of good will. The lines in my life are so crooked, but the line of God is very, very straight.”

Awiapo became a Catholic and, through sponsorship of the missionaries, spent six years in seminary. He eventually opted for marriage; he and his wife Felicia have three children ages 5, 7 and 11. They live in Tamale, in northern Ghana.

Though he did not become a priest, Awiapo has multiple college degrees and now works full time for Catholic Relief Services. He coordinates a food program in Ghana that also promotes education. Among his objectives are to increase enrollment, especially by getting more girls to attend school; secure good accommodations and supplies for teachers and classrooms; and convince parents of the value of education.

Meanwhile, in his travels for CRS, Awiapo encourages Americans to be more globally conscious.

“You are born into this country and that’s all you know,” he said, adding that young audiences find it “inconceivable” that there are places in the world where running water doesn’t exist and several students fight over a single textbook.

While imploring Americans to appreciate what they have, he also asks them to share financial resources with CRS for the sake of folks in faraway lands.

“I believe God blessed the people of this country so they can be a source of blessing,” he said.

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