By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 28, 2008
Imagine a world without electricity or running water. Imagine growing up in a town with no school, no hospital, no doctors. Such was the backdrop for the amazing story of Wiaga, Ghana, native Thomas Awiapo, a recipient of Catholic Relief Services’ aid.
Now serving as a senior program officer for CRS Ghana, the organization that helped him many years ago, Awiapo shares his story with those who have not struggled in the same ways he did. He recently made a trip to the Atlanta area to speak to young people at Marist School and help them become aware of the program that helped him so greatly.
Marist School is currently participating in Operation Rice Bowl, CRS’ Lenten program that connects prayer, fasting and almsgiving with poverty and hunger awareness around the world.
As a child in Ghana, Awiapo received food and education through this program, and Marist wanted its students to see how the support of their families for Operation Rice Bowl benefits real people.
Mike Coveny, who teaches a peace and justice class at Marist, felt it was important for his students “to see firsthand a living example of an individual who experienced poverty and overcame it.”
Coveny’s junior class was present, along with seventh-, eighth- and 12th-graders, for the first of three talks Awiapo gave at Marist on Friday, Feb. 15.
After a brief welcome from CRS Southeast program officer Martha Gaynoe, Awiapo stood at the front of Marist’s chapel and began singing a cappella.
“Let the spirit of the Lord come down,” Awiapo chanted as he closed his eyes. “Let the message of the Lord come down.”
Don’t go to sleep, he joked as he finished the song.
“I am so privileged to be standing here in front of you,” he said with a smile. “I have never seen a school so well dressed!”
Awiapo then made the students aware of exactly why he was there. He spoke of Lent and how this liturgical season calls Christians to “show compassion to our neighbors” and not just neighbors in this country. He told the youth he wanted them to know how the United States and CRS showed him compassion during his time of need.
As the students listened with rapt faces, Awiapo described Wiaga, a village in northern Ghana where he grew up.
He described the differences between a typical American city and his hometown, highlighting the ways he completed tasks many Americans take for granted. For example, Awiapo called the nearby forest his village’s doctor.
“There was no hospital, no doctor,” he said. “We would look for herbs in the forest. … That was our hospital, our doctor, our medicine.”
The lack of what may seem like necessities was not the only struggle Awiapo endured during his childhood. He was orphaned at the age of 10 when his parents died, and also experienced the death of his two youngest brothers while still a boy.
For Awiapo and his last remaining relative, another brother, hunger was the toughest struggle. He described how three meals a day were unheard of in his village. For anyone in the village to eat one meal a day was a blessing.
Awiapo recalled how CRS moved into his village when he was young and supported the building of a school nearby. While school was not something on Awiapo’s agenda at the time, the free snack and lunch CRS offered enticed him to step inside and begin his formal education.
Soon after, Awiapo realized the importance of an education and persevered at the CRS-supported school. With the aid of Operation Rice Bowl funds, he eventually traveled to the U.S. to continue his studies.
Operation Rice Bowl began in 1975 in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., as a response to the drought in the Sahel region in Africa. In over 30 years, Operation Rice Bowl has raised more than $160 million to fund development projects that improve people’s ability to access food around the world and in U.S. diocesan communities.
According to CRS, more than 14,000 faith communities across the United States participate in Operation Rice Bowl as a way to respect human dignity and foster solidarity with the poor around the world. Paper bowls distributed in Lent by CRS are used to collect money as families, individuals, schools, churches and co-workers choose to eat a simple meal instead of regular fare and give the difference to the project. Part of Operation Rice Bowl is educating people about hunger in the world.
In Ghana, CRS is present mainly in the northern regions where there is a high rate of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy. The food-in-school incentive continues to be an important part of CRS’ ministry in Ghana, since hunger runs rampant in certain areas.
Awiapo, who is a graduate of the University of Ghana, earned a master’s degree in public administration from California State University at Hayward. He appreciates the blessings he received from CRS and recognizes that without their support, he would not be where he is today.
“I am very happy that this country is so blessed,” Awiapo said after telling his story. “I thank God that you don’t have to suffer like that.”
Following his testimony, he allowed the students to ask any questions. Most wanted to know more about his village and his family, and Awiapo answered them all with an enthusiastic smile.
“It was very interesting to hear about his village in Ghana,” said senior Andrew Leeds.
Margaret DeGrace, another senior, also recognized the importance and meaning of Awiapo’s visit.
“It was good to see Catholic ministry active in someone’s life,” she said. “It makes it more real.”
Awiapo also spoke at the Cathedral of Christ the King the evening of Feb. 15 to continue to spread the message of the benefits of CRS and Operation Rice Bowl.
“God blessed you so you could be a source of blessings for those less fortunate,” said Awiapo in his closing remarks to the Marist students.
For more information on CRS or Operation Rice Bowl, visit www.crs.org.