Joseph Oppong

I grew up in poverty. I was born in Asankrangwa, a small town in the Western region of Ghana. When I was barely three months old, my father left my mother and returned to his hometown.

The room I shared with my mother, my grandmother, my siblings and 8 other children was about the size of my current office. Although I don’t remember ever going hungry with no food to eat, life was tough.

I did not have the nice clothes my peers had, and I learned very early how to patch up my clothes with a needle and thread. Typically my mom would try to provide each of us children with one outfit a year. Because we lived in an extended family, even when my mom was absent I was fed and disciplined as needed.

My mother never went to school. She has never learned how to read or write, and has no special skills. When I was growing up, she used to sell cooked food at the market. After my father left, my mother had six other children with different men, but each man left her after having a child with her.

Three of these children died before their first birthday. My earliest memories of my mother still puzzle me. When I was about two or three years old, I would hear her praying and crying in the night. She would ask God to take care of her children, to prosper them, so they will take care of her. She was a faithful member of the Methodist Church, and although she couldn’t read, she loved the scriptures and told us Bible stories.

I started first grade as a 5-year old. School was relatively easy for me; I enjoyed it. Throughout primary school I was always at the top of my class. Even in primary school, I had dreams of going to university some day.

In Ghana’s educational system, basic elementary education takes eight to ten years, after which the student can pass an exam to enter secondary school. I passed the exam three times and then gave up because there was no money to buy the clothes I needed for boarding house or pay the required fees.

At age 15, I decided to go to my father. It was my first contact with him since he had left us. My hope was that he would sponsor me through secondary school. I thought that since he had not spent a penny on me up till then, he would make it up to me by paying for secondary education.

My father had two wives then, and was a relatively rich cocoa and rice farmer. When I told him about my dream of going to secondary school and ultimately university, he praised me and promised to support me fully. However, he didn’t have the money then so I would need to work with him for a year to save the money. I plunged myself into the farm work. Using a machete and other simple tools, we did the hard work of cocoa cultivation — clearing the underbrush and spraying pesticides on the trees ‘ and planting and harvesting rice.

After one year of hard farm labor, my dad told me that he had some outstanding debts that he needed to pay. So I needed to work for another year, and for sure, he would support me. That’s what I did, one more year of hard farm labor. In addition to our regular farm work, I also did odd jobs to earn pocket money. Most common was working as a porter ‘ carry head loads of cocoa, rice or other farm produce to the market 7 miles away.

My father’s earnings from all his farm produce during the second year was even more than what he made the previous year. I was excited! At long last my dreams were going to be fulfilled. I used some of my earnings to buy essential clothing I would need for college including mandatory white suit for church service on Sundays.

One Saturday, I heard something that changed my life. I overheard my father talking with one of his wives. She said: ‘What is this I hear about you taking Joseph to Secondary school? You and I have four children. You’ve not taken any of them anywhere and you’re going to take this stranger to secondary school?’

I heard my father say: ‘I don’t intend to take him anywhere. I’m only telling him that to keep him working for us.’

Of course, I was devastated. That evening we had a discussion, and my father told me that he didn’t have the money for my secondary education so I should go back to my mother and my uncles and ask them to buy the rest of the prospectus, and pay for the first two years. If they did this, he would take care of the rest.

I left my father with a deep feeling that not only had he lied to me, he had also used me and dumped me. I went back to my mom, but there was little hope. My mom did what she had always done: she cried and prayed. At 17, I left my mom and went to join my uncle. Shortly after I arrived, I got a job as a weaving machine operator at Akosombo Textiles. I would make money, and support my older brother while he attended college.

For the first time in my life, I had a regular monthly income; I rented a room, and began to ‘enjoy independent life.’ I liked to dance, drank occasionally, and loved the girls. I maintained this life style until 1972, the year my brother was going to graduate. Six months after graduation, my brother Anthony, died. I was devastated, and resolved that I should live it up because I would probably die like my brother.

I was admitted to Mount Mary College. Life was fun. I loved to study and was again at the top of my class and in numerous student organizations. In my final year, I was President of the Student’s Council, a very prestigious position. These activities and positions gave me greater recognition and access to many more girls from neighboring educational institutions. It also meant multiple bouts of sexually transmitted infections. I assumed this was just a side effect of having real fun.

When I graduated in 1976, I was posted to teach in Kintampo Roman Catholic Middle School, in a small town midway between the northern and southern extremity of Ghana. The Kintampo Catholic Church had two expatriate fathers, who couldn’t speak the local language ‘ an Austrian and a Filipino. Very quickly, I became an interpreter and a big shot in the church.

I would assist with Sunday Mass, read scriptures and was held in high esteem by the church members. My real motivation, though, was the girls and sex. My position in church provided these abundantly. The church established a credit union and made me Secretary-Treasurer. It meant people would bring their money and passbooks to me, I would collect their money and was expected to take the money to the head priest That is when the problems started.

I decided that since Father could not know how much money I had collected without a general audit, I could safely invest some of this money for myself and live off the interest. That is exactly what I did, and for a while, things looked good, but not for long. I began to lose money. When the account was finally audited, I had embezzled the equivalent of three times my annual salary. Father Anton told me to pay up or go to jail. I had no means of repaying what I had embezzled. I couldn’t go to my father for help — there was no relationship. And my mother had no financial savings.

Prior to this, two of Ghana’s universities had offered me admission. Thus, I could go to university, my life dream, or go to jail. I was not eager to go to jail. Finding no other way out, I began to pray seriously for the first time in my life. I figured that God was the only one who could keep me out of jail.

The more I prayed, the more I felt like a huge barrier stood between God and me. Prayer felt like just speaking into the air. In desperation, I began to read the Bible. It reassured me that God was able to work miracles in impossible situations like mine. Yet, the more I prayed, the more it felt like my prayers were not going anywhere.

One day, a friend invited me to a prayer meeting. I had gone to him to ask whether there were any preconditions for receiving answers to prayer. He had raised the issue of sin as an impediment to answered prayer, and I told him off because I knew he was a worse sinner than I was. Nevertheless, with no other options, I decided to go to the prayer meeting. It was a life changing event.

The prayer meeting was attended by about 12 people that night. They met in a school classroom with long benches and a cement floor. One thing about these people was very spectacular ‘ they had a peace and joy that I had never experienced. They sang, they danced, and they prayed. And when they prayed, they did not seem to stop, they went on and on, and addressed God in a very personal manner. Clearly, these people had an intimate relationship with God. I knelt down and prayed, ‘God, you know why I am here. The money let it flow.’ I kept repeating this again and again. I was hoping that in answer to my prayer, I would find a stray wallet loaded with cash enough to cover my debt.

After a while, a girl in the group who was about 13 years old began to speak in some strange language. Everybody was quiet. Then she began to translate, and she told everything I ever did:

‘You took money that doesn’t belong to you and now you think that your life has come to an end. I tell you come to me and I’ll give you rest. You thought you could find satisfaction in women and have had many women, but they have not satisfied. I tell you, come to me and I’ll give you rest. About this time last night, you were in your room, thinking about committing suicide. I tell you suicide is not the answer. Come to me all you who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest.’

After this, I could do nothing but cry. For the next several hours, I just wept. You see the night before, alone in my room, I had taken a knife and was thinking about suicide. In fact, I planned to kill myself that week to end the shame and guilt. I thought nobody knew my plan because nobody was in my room. But I was wrong. God was there.

Finally, after crying for what seemed an eternity, tears streaming down my face, I looked up and prayed roughly as follows: ‘God I know I messed up this life real bad. But if you are still interested in me, please take my life and make meaning out of it.’

I don’t know what power there is in those words. Instantly, it felt like a heavy burden I had been carrying all my life was lifted off my shoulders. I had peace inside, and hope also. I knew I was going to university, not jail. On reaching home the next day, I knelt to pray. Instead of the barrier that had existed previously between God and me, or the emptiness, I felt like God was embracing me, that I was lying in his lap. The following week, after prayer, I decided to go to the University of Ghana to complete admission requirements and the freshman orientation. Back home, we didn’t have online registration. Before I left for Accra, I prayed that God will provide my needs.

Strange things began to happen. First, my roommate during orientation, Emmanuel, was a very mature Christian, who loved to pray. After I shared my experiences with him, he prayed with me and assured me that God would make a way for me to come to university, particularly since I was now a Christian. I asked what he meant by that, and he explained that that night at the prayer meeting, God took hold of my life as I requested and now I had become a Christian. I knew something had happened to me that night, I felt different, but didn’t know why. During the one week of freshman orientation, Emmanuel prayed with me everyday.

Meanwhile, during my absence, Father Anton went to report my embezzlement to the Regional Director of Schools and asked for his counsel. He was counseled that in Ghanaian culture, the best strategy would be to threaten me with arrest and jail because I probably had a rich relative, or my extended family would get a loan to pay the debt if they feared I might be imprisoned. Thus, when I returned from freshman orientation and went to greet Father and told him what I’d done the previous week and the fact that I was going to university, his response was simply that he would get me arrested before I left town. I went home and prayed. Confident that God would provide for me, I packed my things and left to begin university education.

Through a complicated series of events, God provided enough money to pay off most of what I owed by the end of my first semester. Emmanuel and I became best friends, and each morning we would go to the Hall Chapel and pray from 5.00 am to 7.00 am. Those were glorious times. I became very actively engaged in the University Christian Fellowship, an affiliate of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. God forgave my sin and, over tine, set me free from my sexual addictions. He made me a new person.

I completed the BA undergraduate honors degree in three years and was retained as a Teaching/Research Assistant for two years. In 1984, I started graduate school at the University of Alberta, Edmonton in Canada. I finished the Masters and PhD in geography at U of A.

I taught at the University of Iowa from 1990-91, before coming to UNT in 1992. The Joseph you see today is different from the Joseph that used to be. Jesus Christ set me free from my sin, cleansed me and made me His. He took my messy past, and gave me a bright future. He changed my destiny from an embezzler bound for jail into a university professor. I thank God that He gave me an opportunity to begin again.

My Life

    • Quote

      I decided that I would live life very fast in college and probably die young.

    Trackbacks/Pingbacks

    1. Semester Kickoff: Goolsby Chapel Sept. 4 | NT Fellowship - September 21, 2015

      […] The rest of his story can be read at Meet The Prof. […]

    2. From Ghana to Jesus | Steve and Sarah Pogue - September 21, 2015

      […] rest of his story can be read at Meet The Prof. This is a website we helped create more than five years ago when professors began mentioning how […]

    Leave a Reply

    A Ministry of Faculty Commons