School Desk

African aid worker tells tales of scarcity and survival


When Catholic Relief Services (CRS) worker Thomas Awiapo traveled to the United States from his hometown of Tamale, Ghana in February for a speaking tour, he landed in a wintery Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

“We never see snow. I almost perished,” he joked. 

On Monday, Mr. Awiapo joined Manhattan College’s CRS Ambassadors group for a talk in the college’s Hayden Auditorium. 

While the tour of the United States was not his first -— Mr. Awiapo earned a master’s degree in public administration from California State University and has visited 48 different states in the course of his work with CRS — he said he was still struck by the juxtaposition between his childhood, in a village where food and water were scarce, and many parts of the U.S., where resources are abundant. 

He has traveled to over 200 schools during his time in the States. But the waste he saw in school cafeterias as he traveled between schools and churches in different dioceses greatly disturbed him.

He recalled landing in JFK on his first trip to the U.S. and being unfamiliar with the automatic faucet in the bathroom of the John F. Kennedy Airport. When he held his hands under the faucet, water gushed out.

“I thought I broke it,” he said. “I didn’t want to get arrested.”

What struck him the most, however, was that the water continued to flow as he walked away from the sink after he had finished washing his hands. As a child, he walked miles to what he described as a germ-ridden river in North Ghana each day to fetch water for his three siblings and himself. 

Orphaned before the age of 10, Mr. Awiapo does not remember his parents’ faces.

“It doesn’t really leave you alone,” he said of the feeling of loss from his parents’ death. 

After his parents died, his two younger brothers perished as a result of poor conditions in the village, and his older brother ran away. 

Mr. Awiapo, who says his lack of a birth certificate makes him unsure of his age, exuded positivity despite the losses he has experienced. 

“A little boy said to me, if you don’t have a date of birth, what do you celebrate?” he recounted. “I said, life.” 

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