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Rice Bowl food and education turned around life for Ghanan boy


Thomas Awiapo

The smell of food drew Thomas Awiapo to a school supported by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Rice Bowl in his home village. Wiaga in Northern Ghana.  He had to study to receive a snack and hot lunch.  That food and education turned his life around.

Thomas and his three brothers lived with aunts and uncles after their parents died, but they had to fend for themselves and were often hungry.  His younger brothers died.  His older brother left the village and did not come back.

“It took an act of kindness to change my life,” he said in an interview in Spokane, where he came during Lent as part of an eight-week U.S. visit to share his story so that other children might benefit.

Not only is he alive, but also he has earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2004 at California State University in East Bay. 

This year, he was promoting water and sanitation: building latrines for girls and boys so they have a place to wash their hands with soap and stay healthy.

He also provides microfinancing so families can earn enough money to feed their children so they can go to school.

Thomas, 41, has been working with CRS for 15 years. He earned his first degree in philosophy and religion in Ghana, and did post graduate studies in education.  He taught at Notre Dame Catholic high school in his home diocese.

For 10 years, he has visited with U.S. Catholic families, parishes and schools, asking them to sacrifice for Lent and put money in boxes for the Rice Bowl.

“They may wonder if it makes a difference.  I put a face on how it makes a difference.  The gifts gave me a better future,” said Thomas, who is married and has four children who do not need snacks supported by Rice Bowl.  “The best gift we can give a child is education.  Education is liberation.  It breaks the chain of poverty and injustice.”

Expressing gratitude, he reminds people that sacrifice during Lent can empower people and communities.

Born into a traditional family, he encountered priests and sisters from St. Francis Xavier parish in his village of nearly 3,000 people.  As a result of going to school, he became Catholic. 

He sees traditional spirituality and Catholicism as having much in common, with both emphasizing communal spirituality of living together, encouraging interdependence and solidarity of bearing each other’s joys and burdens.

“My extended family believes it takes a village to raise a child.  Survival depends on it.  Both the church and traditional spirituality teach that I need you, and you need me,” he said.

Even though he lives in Tamale near the CRS office, he spends 40 percent of his time 100 miles away in his village with his family, giving to that community.  His family has a subsistence farm.  He helps children be educated so they can return and give to the community. Northern Ghana is an area with poor infrastructure, limited education and much poverty.

“My own children learn my village language and culture,” Thomas said, “but they go to school in Tamale.”

His wife is from a different tribe in the village of Sirigu, where they also visit.  Her family is bigger and has taken him in.

Their local dialects are different, so English is their common language, because Ghana was a former British colony. 

His wife, Felicia, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in governance and development, works for the government in Tamale.

While in Washington, Thomas visited his oldest daughter, Loretta, 23, who is on a scholarship for pre-med studies at Seattle Pacific University.  He also has two sons, Kelvin, 16, and Melvin 14, and a daughter Lindy, 7.

“Catholic Relief Services is the church in action in social ministry around the world,” he said.

For 75 years, CRS has used donations of American people in other nations.

“People are receptive to me.  My story helps them appreciate their own lives and what they have,” he said.  “I bring another perspective from a place where children walk five miles to school, may sit under a tree rather than in a classroom and have no pencils to write.

“I realize I’m blessed.  Blessings come with responsibility to help those in need,” he said.  “My goal is for more girls, as well as boys, to go to and finish school so they find work and can support their parents, children and village.”

Thomas wants people to see his story as a story of hope, mercy, love, care and blessings from God.

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