It was nearly 40 years ago that my father died. I was just a small boy. Not long after that my mother got sick. We did everything we could. Goats were sacrificed. But it was hopeless. She died too. If it were not for Catholic Relief Services, I might not be alive to write these words.
To this day, there is no place I would rather be than my village in Ghana, which is called Tamale. It is 300 miles from the capital, Accra. I love the place. I am now working to build a school there. But when our parents died, my three brothers and I were taken in by family members. We were expected to be servants. That was the custom then for stepchildren. And stepchildren were the last to get food when it was served. We were all poor, so often — too often — that meant there was little left for us.
One of my brothers died. No one said why. I think it was because he was malnourished. Then my youngest brother died. He was so small I used to carry him around on my back. Then my older brother ran away. I was alone in a family that did not love me.
The future looked bleak. One day I saw a boy carrying sorghum — a grain you have probably never eaten, for good reason, because it does not have much taste. In the United States, it is mainly used to feed cattle. Even in Africa, where it is widely grown because it does well with little rain, many brew it into a sour beer. But when I saw that boy with a basket of sorghum, all I could think is that I was hungry and wanted some.
I learned that he got it at school. So that’s where I headed. For the first time in my life, I became a student — for one reason, because we got a meal and some more sorghum to take home with us. Sometimes I was able to trade small packets of salt or spices for even more sorghum. The other boys wanted their sorghum to taste better. I just wanted to eat more of it.
Of course, as I was getting those meals, I was getting another nourishment — education. It opened up a new world for me. Eventually, I escaped my circumstances as my grades were good enough to get me into a Catholic high school. It was there I learned about Christianity and found my faith.
For a while, I studied to be a priest, but God called me in a different direction. I married and started a family. I went to university in Accra. With a scholarship, I came to the United States and received a master’s degree in public administration from California State University at Heyward.
But I never forgot that it all started with that boy carrying sorghum. It came from a school feeding program run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), partially funded by the CRS Rice Bowl collection.
When I returned to Ghana, I went to work for CRS. During Lent, I like to travel to the United States and tell people about how important it is to fill their Rice Bowls, that their small sacrifices really make huge differences in the lives of people.
I do not know my age since my parents, who would know when I was born, are dead. I think I am about the same age as CRS Rice Bowl: 43. Once, I told my story to an auditorium of school children here in the United States. One child said that since I did not know my birthday, today was as good as any. He then led everyone in singing “Happy Birthday” to me. It made me feel so good, confirming that though my life had been so different than the ones enjoyed by those children, we were all united in the human family through our generosity, our curiosity and our kindness.
As CRS marks 75 years of work, I thought it would be good for you to hear the story of one person this wonderful organization had helped. There are not just hundreds like me out there, there are not just thousands, there are millions and millions of people whose lives have been transformed because of CRS. Some, like me, got food and education, some their health, some better farming techniques, some what they needed to recover from a drought, a hurricane or an earthquake. The list of the ways that CRS has helped goes on and on, as does the effects on ensuing generations, goodness spreading out like ripples on a pond, going on and on forever.
When I talk to people at CRS, no one can tell me the exact birth date of CRS back in 1943. So today is as good a day as any to join me in singing “Happy Birthday.”
Thomas Awiapo lives in Ghana with his wife and their four children. Though no longer on the CRS staff, he often returns to the United States during the Lenten season to tell his story on behalf of CRS Rice Bowl.