The remote bushlands of West Africa are far from Johns Hopkins University, and the path was neither sure nor straight for the boy whose name meant “beloved by his ancestors.” They called him Kpimenongme Mwinnyaa.
Only now, as he prepares to graduate – having been baptized George, having earned semester after semester of straight A’s despite grades once too poor for college – does he dare believe it’s more than a dream.
George Mwinnyaa, 29, will receive a bachelor’s degree in public health with academic honors during Hopkins’ commencement Wednesday.
Mwinnyaa, who is from Ghana, says he slips on a woven African smock each morning to remember where his path began.
“If you don’t know where you come from, you will not know where you are going,” he says.
He comes from a remote village in Nandom-Guo, where a cobra bite kills fast and cholera even faster. Polygamy was the custom and his father had seven wives and 32 children. George was the youngest of them all. He was about five years old when his father died and his widowed mother was left to raise seven children. A slight woman, she held off starvation with her wits, boiling hot peppers into soup. A few spoonfuls would cause George to gulp water to ease his hunger.
Each morning he woke before sunrise to fetch water from the river and hoe the dry plot that never grew enough beans. Then he walked a path through the bush to cinder-block desks arranged beneath a shea tree, a place they called school.
He earned poor grades, C’s at best. When he led his class in the morning routine, he burned with shame from the holes in his pants; he had no underwear.
Somehow, his mother managed to pay his school fees. Monica Naaludong persuaded teachers to take him when his tuition was late. She sold her traditional beads and hand-woven cloths to afford his books. George held back his frustration when she insisted education was more important than a full belly.
“She knew that education was a way to change not only me, but my whole family’s destiny,” he said.
His grades were too poor for college, but Ghana’s health department offered to train traveling health workers. Two years later, he was riding a motorbike to rural villages, immunizing children against yellow fever and polio. He waded across rivers carrying vaccines on his head. He taught mothers breastfeeding methods and measured the heartbeats of their babies.
He earned less than $9 a day, a life-changing salary, and bought his mother the traditional cloths she once sold for his books.
In the coastal city of Esiama he met a Peace Corps worker from Alaska, and all his questions about America tumbled out. He saw a job opening online for a health worker in Haiti. What was a resume? he asked her.
“I was like, ‘He’ll never be able to save enough money for a plane ticket, but I’ll help with a resume,'” Leslie Lucas said.
When they walked along the beach, she told herself it was customary for friends to hold hands in Ghana. But they married in a local chapel in August 2012. One year later, the couple boarded an airplane and flew to America.
Source: Baltimore Sun |