Tuesday, January 5, 2021

2020: Where Did My Adventure Take Me?

I apologize for the sudden and complete silence after my January 2020 blog. 

2020 has been a unique, unusual and challenging year for all of us.  Mid-March I received word from LMH that they were suggesting I temporarily return to the United States during the pandemic for a variety of reasons:  the ‘unknown’ surrounding the possible severity of the virus, the scarce medical resources in the area of Ghana I was living in, and the fact that the government of Ghana might possibly close their borders.  After some prayer and discernment, I decided to follow the LMH suggestion and within a week of that decision, I was packing my bags.  I was told the return was meant to be temporary, but that I should take any personal belongings that were important to me should I not be able to return.

Two days before I was to leave, the President of Ghana announced the closing of all schools the following day.  Thus, the girls left SAGISS the day before I did.  Ghana closed its borders, including the International airport, the day after I took off for the United States.  It all happened in a flurry.

My son Paul picked me up at the airport and gave me his bed to sleep in for a couple days.  I searched the web and found an Airbnb to stay in for a few weeks.   When I left Ghana, I had thought I would be able to see family and friends on my return, only to find everyone locked down in their own homes, working their jobs from home, going out only for groceries.  Churches were also closed; Mass was being live-streamed.  I was basically isolated from everyone.  This was not really what I had envisioned on my return home.

The night I arrived in the US, my son Joe and his wife Alex, disclosed to me via facetime that they were expecting their first child in November.  Exciting news in this time of pandemic!  There was at least one thing to look forward to!

Mid-May, I moved to my sister Gina and brother-in-law Kevin’s lake home about 3 hours northwest of the Twin Cities.  They have a nice, large home they were willing to share with me.  Little did they know I would be there for 6 months!  The lake home was a beautiful, peaceful and restful place.  We had some great sister bonding and I am beyond grateful for their immense generosity.

In November, I returned to the Airbnb for what I expected to be two months.  I wanted to be in the Twin Cities for the arrival of my new grandbaby and also to prepare myself for my return to Ghana.

Ghana opened their international airport on September 1st.  Shortly, thereafter, Karen, my co-missionary in Damongo, announced her intent to return to Ghana in early November.  As my new grandbaby was to be born in November, and with the holidays shortly upon us, I chose to wait until January 2021 for my return.  In fact, the ticket was purchased for a January 7th departure.  I started planning and purchasing the items I needed to take with me.  My excitement to return to Damongo was palpable.

Mid-November came and my grandson was born, Remy Sterling Yonga.   He is a doll and I treasure those special days when I can visit him, holding him in my arms.  Being a Nana is very special!

As I continued preparing for my return, I received some unfortunate and unexpected news.  I guess returning to Ghana was not what God had planned for me.   A routine mammogram showed a spot which needed some further testing.  After multiple further mammograms, an ultrasound and a biopsy, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I am fortunate that it was caught early and my prognosis is very good.  However, it means surgery and radiation therapy, followed by hormone therapy.

Timing was very tight, so it was a mad rush to sign up for 2021 health insurance by the December 15th deadline, find an apartment so I would not have to live out of my suitcase any longer (9 months of living out of a suitcase is plenty), and move my belongings out of storage and in to my apartment by Christmas.

The pandemic has devastated the lives of millions throughout the world.  Ironically, the United States has suffered much greater devastation by the pandemic than has Ghana.  As it turns out, my chances of contracting the virus seem much higher here than they would have been in Damongo. The positive news for me is that the pandemic brought me back to the United States and as a result, the breast cancer was detected early.  Had I remained in Ghana for the complete three years of my mission, who knows how much it might have spread before it would have been detected.

However, now my three-year mission has ended prematurely. There is a sadness in my heart.  I felt called to the mission and I feel I thrived there in many respects.  I experienced joy and peace during my time in Ghana.   I feel truly blessed to have had those fourteen months in Damongo, as teacher to those happy, helpful students; school secretary to the headmistress and dear friend, Madam Pauline; and as storekeeper to both teachers and non-teaching staff and students at SAGISS.  I treasure the friendships I made.  I treasure the experiences I had.  I am greatly appreciative of the support given to me by Bishop Peter Paul, and the friendly welcome by the many priests and religious.

As I reread the blog entries I wrote during those 14 months, I have very mixed emotions.  Smiles and laughter remembering all the good times I had in Damongo and sadness at the realization that my time there has ended.  I know I received more from my experience there than I gave.  It was a true gift from God.  It seems God’s plan for me is now taking me down a different path.  I have placed my trust in God and I know He will be with me throughout my treatment for breast cancer, drawing me ever closer to Him.

My adventure will continue……………………. but no longer in Damongo  and no longer being shared via this blog.  Thank you for following my mission adventure and all your support via prayer and monetary donations over the past two years.  May 2021 find us all a bit more happy, a bit more holy and a bit more closer to God!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

One Year

I vividly remember the day my sons, Joe and Paul, drove me to MSP airport, sending me off with their loving hugs and kisses.  As I turned and walked to the security line, big tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks, knowing I might not see them again for three years, as I set off on the first leg of my journey to Damongo, Ghana for mission work.

One year later and I have so much to be thankful for!

First and foremost, I thank God!  I thank the Father for putting the call to mission in my heart.  I thank Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for speaking to me through the people I am encountering on mission and I thank the Holy Spirit for the gifts of courage, patience, humility, understanding and peace that have helped me to maneuver through the differences in culture, tradition, food, beliefs, and way of life.
I am so grateful for my children, in-laws and grandchildren:   for their excitement for me in taking the major step in following my dream, their emotional support, their sacrifice in giving up three years of family holidays,  eating brunch or dinner together, visits to the beach or going out for ice cream, birthday parties, my homemade cinnamon rolls and French pancakes, or just dropping by to say HI and catching up on each other’s lives.

I thank Lay Mission Helpers Association, for accepting me into their program, for providing me with a comprehensive formation and training program, preparing me spiritually and culturally.  I am thankful for the classes that helped me to understand myself, who I am and how I interact with others.  I thank my co-missionaries and LMH Veterans who helped me through formation and for ongoing support throughout mission by sharing stories and experiences.  
I can’t express adequately, how grateful and thankful I am for my co-missionary, Karen Hunka, who is here in Damongo with me. She has helped me navigate through this first year – which I have been informed is typically the most difficult year of the three.   We experience together the different types of food, the tribal languages, cultural differences, extremely dry, hot weather, large and numerous bugs and insects, tiny ants that seem to invade everywhere, and the lizards that decide they want to make our living room their home. Karen is always available when I need some one to talk to or to run a problem by.  I can count on Karen for her creative ideas, hard-work and generosity.

I thank my siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins for their love and communications via Facebook, email and letters.  I thank them for their many prayers and unconditional love and for believing my mission is a call from God and supporting me throughout, though it might not be something they would ever do.
I thank my friends:  my Church friends, my family friends, my work friends, my neighbors, my Cameroonian community friends, my Facebook friends.  I thank my friends for understanding why I had to leave and follow God’s call.    I thank them for their spiritual and emotional support – via prayers and for their social support via Facebook posts to keep me abreast of what is going on in the United States.

I thank everyone who has helped to support my mission financially, through donations to LMH and sending of care packages. 

I thank the people of Damongo for welcoming me with open arms, open minds and open hearts.  I thank the Diocese of Damongo, Bishop Peter Paul, many priests, religious brothers and sisters for their friendship and spiritual guidance.  I thank the Bishop for providing me with a comfortable home, for placing me at St. Anne’s Girls Senior High School (SAGISS) as a teacher, secretary and storekeeper.  

I thank Headmistress Pauline, who is not only my boss but also my friend who explains the “Ghanaian way”  to me.  I thank my fellow teachers, the non-teaching staff (bursar, matron, security, cooks, laborers, drivers) who support my daily life, and of course, I love the wonderful, sweet students who are always smiling and who make me smile. 

It is amazing to think that one-third of my time in mission in Ghana has already passed.   I have had so many new experiences.  I have encountered many wonderful people; they have welcomed me and have accepted me, allowing me to become more comfortable in their homeland. I have seen the beauty of God’s creation here in Damongo – the diversity in the landscape, the animals, the people. 

2020 is a new year and I have dedicated this year to the Blessed Virgin Mary, my spiritual mother.  I will strive to grow in my relationship with her so she can guide me to make decisions that will help me grow in holiness, humility, purity and love.  She will draw me closer to her son, Jesus Christ, so I can radiate His light to those I encounter.
 Year 2 ……the adventure continues……

Monday, December 16, 2019

End of Year Events and Reflection

In 7 short weeks, my first year in Ghana will have been completed.  Hard to believe!  So many new experiences; so many blessings from God.

October brought with it new neighbors!  Francis, Paulina, Anne and Nathan moved in to Mary Shaw’s bungalow next door. 

It is wonderful hearing the sound of young children laughing!  Nathan bangs on our gate door, calling “Granny, Granny, Granny”, when he wants to visit.  The other day, he started calling me “Granny Diane!”  Very cool!  We kick the soccer ball in the courtyard, which always brings back great memories of kicking the ball with Joseph and Paul in their young years. 

October also brought my 60th birthday, which fell on World Mission Sunday.  Saturday evening, Karen and the girls planned a surprise birthday party for me, where all the girls sang to me and we had jollof spaghetti and cake.

Sunday morning, we travelled to Sawla to celebrate a special Diocesan Mass with Bishop Peter Paul, where I was introduced to the packed church and specially prayed for.  Lunch with the Bishop and a number of priests and religious was enjoyed. 

We closed out October, the Month of the Rosary, with a special Mass at the Grotto.

Francis had some young men from the high school he teaches at come and dig us a garbage pit.  Anne had to jump in before any garbage was dumped in!  

SAGISS was also blessed to receive some special American visitors.  Carol Hofer and three of her friends, Dr. Irene Allen, RoseAnn Morrow and Kari Green from Michigan, are with a group who sponsor six girls’ education at SAGISS per year.  They have been sponsoring the girl-child’s education in northern Ghana for many years.  Carol taught at Damongo Senior High back in the 1970’s as a Peace Corps volunteer.  They educated the girls on certain health and hygiene matters and gifted them with hygiene kits and Rosaries.  The girls greatly enjoyed their visit, and welcomed them with some tribal dances.  Karen and I had a great time visiting with people from back home in the United States!

My Food and Nutrition Form 1 class ended up with six girls.  

The teacher for the Form 3 Food & Nutrition class ended up transferring to another school, so I picked up the Form 3 class to end the term.  There are only 3 girls in that class.  It isn’t easy picking up a class in the middle of the term, but we are managing.  The girls are taking their end of Term exams and will be leaving for Christmas vacation December 20th. 

Karen and I spent a weekend in November in Tamale to attend a Diaconate Ordination.  The ordination was beautiful and inspiring.  Seventeen men who will be ordained priests in the next year came from both a Diocesan seminary and a Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) seminary.  We celebrated with two young men from the Diocese of Damongo, Rev. Maclean and Rev. Clement.

We were excited to reunite with the SVD seminarians we spent the 12 day TICCS Cultural program with a couple months earlier.  See previous blog. 

The weekend included a visit to a restaurant that served stone hearth baked pizza!  I hadn’t had pizza since I left the United States, more than 10 months earlier.  I ordered the Hawaiian – pineapple and ham.  It was totally delicious!   I ate the WHOLE thing!  So, so good!

Thanksgiving came.  I had to work that day.  Karen cooked us baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, pumpkin bread and apple crisp.  We topped it off with some sweet red wine.  It was tasty!  It was definitely not our typical Thanksgiving; missing our families even more than we do typically.  However, it was a day of Thanks!  I thanked God for my family and their understanding and support for my mission, I thanked God for the courage He provided me to follow His call to Ghana, and I thanked God for the many graces and the mercy He has blessed me with.

The Damongo Diocese WUCWO (World Union of Catholic Women Organization) Celebration was November 29 – December 1.   My boss, Headmistress Madam Pauline, is the President of the Damongo Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (DCCW), so I was involved in some of the preparations.  She made sure Karen and I bought our CCW “cloth” so we could wear the uniform with the women from the various parishes that gathered for the weekend at the Unity Center.  It was a special weekend, meeting women from many villages.  It was surprising to me that the majority of them did not speak English.  There was a lot of communication done simply by sharing smiles and laughs with one another!    

I have been reflecting on my life here in Damongo and my relationship with God.  The Liturgy here in Ghana is very lively and upbeat.  Throughout my life, I have encountered a number of different types of liturgy.  The church we attended as a family when the children were growing up, (Church of St. Gerard Magella in Brooklyn Park) had a liturgy supported by modern Christian music, including piano, guitars and drums rather than an organ.  For many years, I loved the music in that church.  I listened to popular Christian artists on the radio and in music videos.  It was uplifting and gave me a positive, sunny disposition for the day.  It fit where I was in life and in my spirituality at the time.  As the years went by, at some point, that Church was not providing me with what I needed.  I needed quiet, reflective time before Mass – to pray and connect to God, not people in the pews talking; I needed kneelers (which the church did not have) during Consecration; I needed some solemnity, some reverence.

I eventually found my way to the Cathedral of St. Paul, which gave me what I was yearning for.  The music took a 180° turn.  Suddenly, I was listening to choral organ music.  The Church was quiet and peaceful.  There were numerous side chapels with kneelers.  They offered two daily Masses – one in the evening that worked perfectly in to my work schedule. There was incense, kneeling and reverence. In time, I met many wonderful, spiritual, like-minded people and enjoyed time with them doing various service projects.  I felt at home at the Cathedral, it was like a family. But sometimes when we get too comfortable, God decides it is time for something new.
When God called me to mission, I was praying the following prayer:  “I wish that all I have be Yours, and I put it in Your hands:  My soul, my eternal salvation, my liberty, MY SPIRITUAL PROGRESS, my life my health, my family, my possessions, my work, and whatever good deeds I can accomplish, so that You will arrange these things according to your will.”

The first time I said that prayer, I was actually scared to pray it.  Could I actually trust God with all these very important things?  Could I give up control?  Could I accept God’s will in these areas of my life, rather than my own desires?  Was I praying for something I would later regret?  Would I be able to handle what God decided to give me?

My SPIRITUAL PROGRESS.  Sometimes, I wonder if I have progressed spiritually since coming to Ghana.   I do not doubt that by the time my three years is up, I will have grown closer to God.  I trust God has a plan and as long as I trust Him, I will be closer to the person he created me to be.  I really miss Eucharistic Adoration.  It was such a blessing to be able to be in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with our Lord in the early morning hours – just Him and me.  I could talk to Him about anything.  I could feel His presence. 

Sometimes I long for Eucharistic Adoration.  Sometimes I wonder how I could have given that up.  It was such a blessing.  So wonderful, I can’t even put it into words.  But then I remember the prayer – I am putting my Spiritual Progress in God’s hands.  I am trusting that God knows what He is doing in my life.  I know God loves me so much that He wants only the BEST for me.  He wants me to know He loves me.  Even though I might not understand how or why certain things happen in life, I know in the end it is all for my best.  As long as I let God be in charge of my eternal salvation, my liberty, my spiritual progress, my life, my health, my family, my possessions, my work and good deeds, then I know all will be fine.  God loves me and wants only the best for me.  He can do so much better for me than I can myself.  I trust Him.  I will continue to strive to turn over control of my life to God, because “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has conceived the things He has prepared for those who love Him”.  

“Only in God is satisfaction to be found….. I am allowing God to bring me the most thrilling plan existing, one I cannot imagine…… 

The adventure continues……

Friday, October 4, 2019

White Woman

The 2019-2020 academic school year has begun.  Girls trickled in slowly at first, but most all of our returning students are now on campus.  We have 16 new Form 1 students so far, though the list of those who signed up to come was over 40.  I have been told it is common in Ghana for first years to arrive up to a month after the start of the year.

 I will be teaching the Form 1 Food and Nutrition class again this year.  Out of the 16 students, only two are Home Science Program students, so my class is currently very small.  We are expecting quite a few more in the next two weeks.  Pray they are able to find the money to come.  Being a Catholic school, it is a fee-paying institution, and many families find it very difficult to come up with the necessary money to send their daughters to senior high school.  Education of the girl-child in northern Ghana is still lagging behind other parts of the country. 

Along with teaching the one class, I am also the school Secretary and the school Storekeeper.  These three functions keep me very busy.  Outside of the school, the Headmistress is the President of the Council of Catholic Women Association, a world-wide organization of Catholic Women.  She has talked Karen and I into joining and helping her with a big Diocesan-wide event coming up at the end of November.  More news on that at a later time.

It is currently October, both the Month of the Rosary and this year, the Extraordinary Month for Missions.  We started October 1st, the Feast Day of St. Therese of Lisieux – (The Little Flower – St. Therese of the Child Jesus), co-patron of Missionaries along with St. Francis Xavier, with a Mission Rosary and Mass at the Grotto in Damongo.  It was a beautiful way to start the month.

My long-time friend, Augie Ambe, came upon my blog via Facebook last month and spent three hours going through all of posts from the beginning, reading, watching videos and looking at the many pictures.   He enjoyed it and asked me to continue, however, he also had a question for me.  “How does it really feel “standing out” as a white woman in Africa?”

Those of you who know Augie, are not surprised he would delve in and ask this question.
First, for me, I have been a part of a large Cameroonian community in the Twin Cities for many years.  It was not unusual for me to attend a large Cameroonian gathering, and be the only white person (or one of just a couple white people) at the event.  Therefore, it is not an altogether a new experience for me to be a white woman standing out amongst Africans.

What is different for me, is that in Africa, it is an every-day, all day occurrence.  There is no way around it or out of it.  Here I am definitely a minority, I am an “outsider” and it is readily apparent by simply glancing at me.

The question really poses two – even three issues – being WHITE in Africa, being a WOMAN in Africa, and being a “WHITE WOMAN” in Africa.  Then there is the whole “STANDING OUT” idea.   They are all very interesting topics.

I oftentimes forget that I am WHITE in Africa.  It is not really something I think a lot about. I oftentimes forget I am a different color than those around me.

Standing out by being WHITE in Africa mainly comes to my attention when young children are around.  Their expressions range from big smiles, waiving and wanting to touch me, to looks of confusion, not really knowing who this odd-looking person is.  The fact that people are noticing me – brings the fact I am white back to my attention.  I am typically in the SAGISS compound during the week, so my whiteness really plays little into my thoughts.  It is on weekends when I go to town to Saturday market and Mass on Sundays that my “whiteness” come into play.

I have never felt discriminated against or felt treated badly because I am white in the land of the black man.  The people of Ghana, most specifically those at SAGISS, and those in the Diocese of Damongo have treated me with honor, respect and kindness.    Sometimes, I have felt uncomfortable by the fact that I was being placed in a position of honor when I really did nothing to deserve it, other than come to live amongst them to spread the love of Jesus Christ to them through relationship with them.

There are, however, other things that do make me uncomfortable or self-conscious.  Those things are LANGUAGE barriers and RELIGIOUS differences.  These two things play a much larger role in how it feels to “stand out” in Africa.

Living in Northern Ghana, there are a large number of people who do not speak English.  We are in Gonja land, and most people I meet in the market or even the day laborers at SAGISS were not taught English when they were growing up.  Language is a barrier for me.  I have never learned a second language, and at my age, I admit it is both a struggle and not something I originally wanted to do.  I liked the fact Ghana was English speaking, just for that reason.  But a nation having English as one of its official languages, unfortunately does not mean everyone speaks it.

Every time I greet one of the day laborers, cooks, or security men at SAGISS, I struggle to communicate effectively and it reminds me I am an alien in this land.  Every time I go to market to buy fruit, vegetables, bread, etc., it is a reminder that I am different and “stand out”. 
I live in Damongo – which is Gonja land, yet the Diocese of Damongo is heavily populated with Dagaari people, from the Upper West Region of Ghana.  Then you can add in the Fra-Fra and the Fulani and multiple other tribes and you have a myriad of possible tribal languages to deal with.  It makes my head spin, so I just smile sweetly and say ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Hello’ or give a big wave.

Northern Ghana is also predominantly Muslim.  There are mosques everywhere – every little village has a mosque.  With the Muslim culture, come some beliefs regarding how men and women relate to one another that are very different from our Western ways. (For that matter, many of the Ghanaian traditions are very different than Western ways as well – in relation to male/female equality.)  As a white woman in northern Ghana, I need to learn these beliefs and tradition to try and avoid unknowingly offending people.  These are the more difficult things that remind me I am different from everyone else.

I have been in Ghana for 8 months and so far, I feel very welcomed by most.  I have not felt discriminated against, but sometimes I wonder if people take advantage of me in the market because I am from the West and they believe that means I have money, so they raise the price for me.  Nothing at the market has a price on it, you ask what it costs and either pay it or try to bargain with them.  I have bargained a couple times, but usually just pay the stated price.
So how does it feel “standing out” being a “white woman” in Africa?

“Standing out” makes me aware of the fact of how very important it is that I must represent Jesus Christ, Christianity and the Catholic Church with actions that are kind, generous and responsible, with honesty, integrity and courage, with thoughtfulness and peaceful, loving intentions.
The adventure continues… God continues to work on me…transforming me……...