I know C.S. Lewis coined the phrase, and I don’t mean to plagiarize, but ‘surprised by joy’ is the only way to describe my recent trip to Ghana. When Lisa Tuttle (founder of the Ghana Children’s Fund) was discussing her upcoming trip and all that it entailed, I did not have an overwhelming desire to join her. In fact, quite the opposite. I had no intention of schlepping to Ghana anytime soon or even in this lifetime. I can find plenty to do in my own backyard I thought. However, God had different plans, and the Holy Spirit planted the idea in my head. Suddenly, the obstacles that had deterred me didn’t sound so bad at all.
When I boarded the plane to Ghana, I knew God had a gift waiting for me, but couldn’t imagine its beauty and depth. We arrived to cheering for Mother Lisa, hoards of children running beside the bus leaping with joy then swarming not only Lisa and Julia, but Maeve and myself whom they had never met. Witnessing the relationship the Tuttles share with everyone at the orphanage moved me in a way I didn’t anticipate, and the children of Ghana touched me in a place I didn’t even know existed and left their fingerprints indelibly etched upon my heart. Their purity and joy flooded my being and refreshed my hungry, world-weary soul. I knew then, without a doubt, that I would be connected to them forever. They embraced me as their own and took care of me all week as their honored guest. I now understood Lisa’s connection to these people, and why the founder of the orphanage calls it the Promised Land. Did I witness abject poverty? On a scale I’d never seen before. However, with all that said, the incredible joy bubbling out of these children was what surprised me most.
The children refer to Lisa as Mother Lisa, which makes perfect sense because she truly is their mother in every sense. Everyone comes to her with their issues, and she listens patiently to everyone. Because they thought we looked so much alike, many decided to call me Second Mother Lisa, and what a privilege considering the esteem in which she is held.
While Lisa had told me much about the orphanage over the years, having the opportunity to visit brought it from my head into my heart. Sadly, this is one of those things that defy explanation. I’ve always believed some things are meant to be experienced not explained. Meeting these children was one of those things. You can read about starving children, but when one is knocking on your door telling you “my stomach is crying,” it takes on an entire new meaning. The most difficult and painful part of it is that if you give something (which I frequently did), within minutes, the others would be like bees to honey swarming me for even the wrapper from the granola bard I’d just eaten so they could lick off the crumbs. And for many of those from the villages, their stomachs are indeed crying, witnessed by the fact that they ate the paper airplanes I made for them.
The children are much the same as children everywhere. They vie for your attention, gas and potty talk reduces them to giggling fits, they will do anything for a piece of candy, they will fight with their siblings, and they will become teenagers and push every button you have. Not all orphans are adorable little babies. They grow up, though those are not the pictures that pull at people’s hearts. Long after they outgrow your lap, they are needier still.
There is no question these kids have heartbreaking stories and bleak futures, yet they still remain joyful. They are starving all right, but not as much for food as for affection. This is why I feel compelled to embrace them and provide hope for their future – to avoid seeing their joy erode into resignation and hopelessness. Are their pasts tragic? Yes, but that doesn’t mean their future has to be. By our standards, their present living conditions are abysmal, yet they are happy and joyful. Why? First and foremost – their faith in God and their absolute trust that He heard their prayers and sent Mother Lisa to them, which He undoubtedly did.
What I saw during my visit was not what Lisa found on her first trip. Thanks to her efforts and the generosity of her supporters, the lives of these children have been enhanced by a well, a school bus, a kitchen, a dining hall, a new school building, school supplies, a computer lab, a chicken coop, and access to a high school education. Before Lisa, they had no advocate. I suppose their invisibility is the reason these children need our help so badly. Thankfully, they are no longer invisible or forgotten. Lisa has become their voice in the world, and by supporting her we all make that voice just a little bit louder.
Despite their poverty, the children of Ghana are the most happy, polite, respectful, thankful children. They work incredibly had under the worst of conditions taking nothing for granted. Their most valuable possession is their education. Many people think these children want an education as a way out, but most have no desire to leave. What they want is the opportunity to use that education to create better lives for their families and initiate changes that will ultimately result in better living conditions for the country as a whole. Who knows? One of them could be the next Kofi Annan.
The only hope for change in any developing nation is educating the children. The children in the U.S. have access to a free education, but it is up to them what they choose to do with it. For the children of Ghana, that opportunity doesn’t exist and without it, there is no hope for a future. I believe it is our responsibility both personally and as a nation to share the opportunities we take for granted. Our government and churches as well as many other organizations offer assistance to the needy. These do not exist in areas like Okaafor. I cannot deny there are people right here that need help, but there are also a lot of helpers.
Just as Mother Theresa was lead to Calcutta, we are lead to where we are meant to be – in that I truly believe. For some, it will be around the world; and for others, it will be around the corner. For many, it will be both. Who says you can only help in one place. It should never be an either/or scenario. We all have a huge capacity to love, one of God’s resources which knows no limits. Help doesn’t always need to be monetary. I will support the Ghana Children’s Fund monetarily and with my time and energy, but I think it is safe to say the love and hugs I offered to the children during my visit held more value for them.
In the faces of the children at Good Shepherd I didn’t see desperation, I saw determination. I saw the future of Ghana, and it wasn’t poverty and despair. These children are smiling and joyful because they do not know a different world. They are thankful for what they have, we see what they don’t have…food and education. In closing, I will leave you with one thought. When the Pope asked Mother Theresa how she planned to help all those in Calcutta, she simply replied, “One at a time.” And that is all any of us is called to do regardless of who or where.