By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

GLADWYNE – Thomas Awiapo, representing Catholic Relief Services (CRS) addressed churchgoers March 14 at St. John Baptist Vianney Parish, Gladwyne on the topic of need and hunger in Africa. He knows first-hand of what he spoke.

Four decades ago, as a child in Ghana, he not only knew real hunger, he saw two younger brothers die from malnutrition and lack of proper care. Both of his parents were dead by the time he was 10, and he was raised by aunts and uncles and other members of his village.

“In the African extended family you are welcome in any home,” he said.

At St. Francis Xavier Mission near his home, the White Fathers (now Missionaries of Africa) took an interest in him, saw him through a CRS-supported elementary school and on to high school at Notre Dame School, which is a minor seminary conducted by the Diocese of Navrongo-Bolgatang.

After high school and college at the University of Ghana he received a grant to attend California State University at Hayward (now California State University East Bay) where he received his master’s degree in public education.

Ghana is as not as destitute as it was when Awiapo was a child, nor as needy as some of its surrounding countries, but there are certainly instances of real hunger. “You can’t eliminate hunger entirely. We still have some people who are malnourished and people living on less than a dollar a day,” he said. “Sixty percent of the families live on subsistence farms. If the rains come they are all right. If it doesn’t rain, they have nothing.”

Awiapo, who is married with four children, visits the U.S. to put a face on CRS and its world-wide mission of mercy. He also accompanies visitors to Ghana who wish to see CRS’s work first-hand.

The most basic need he sees is water, both for the crops and for sanitation, and for that reason CRS assists through well-digging and teaching water purification.

CRS Ghana also reaches 803 schools, serving 226,000 students, but illiteracy is still high. At the time of the 2000 census, half the population could not read.

During his visits to America and places like St. John Baptist Vianney, Awiapo tries to put a face on the work that is being done through their charitable contributions.

Yes, he explains how there are still many children who are subject to disease because they do not have access to clean water, or they do not have three meals a day and may walk five miles to school.

But he is his own poster child.

“CRS changed my life and it empowered me through education,” he said.

“Of course more money is needed. It is difficult in these economic times because programs have to be downsized for lack of funding,” Awiapo said. Nevertheless his main message is, “Thank you for what you have done for us.”

In Ghana, as in much of Africa, the Catholic Church is thriving, with steady growth and many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Pope Benedict XVI’s recently concluded trip to Angola and Cameroon was capped by an outdoor Mass attended by a million Africans – to date, the largest crowd that has gathered for the Pontiff.

Catholic Relief Services was founded in 1943 by the American bishops. At this time its services touch the lives of an estimated 80 million people in more than 100 countries. Contributions may be sent to Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.