When he gets to the part about the bags of food and the cans of oil, Thomas Awiapo can make the most stoic American weep. He does this by taking you back 35 years, to the time the United States saved his life in Ghana.
Awiapo was just a boy then, maybe 10 years old. He's not certain of his age because neither his mother nor father recorded his birth with a local authority, and both his parents died before Awiapo could think to ask them about it.
When you are one of four orphaned brothers facing starvation in a poor village in West Africa, the exact date of your birth is unimportant. Survival is what you worry about. Finding food is what you think about.
Awiapo's older brother ran away. Then his two younger brothers died, the littlest one in Awiapo's lap. "Malnourished, skinny, bony, he died, and I didn't know he was dead," Awiapo told me recently. "And they picked him away from my hands, from my lap. ... Those memories don't leave me."
Fending for himself, Awiapo smelled food coming from a village school. He had no interest in being a student, but he needed to eat. He discovered that the school had a food program operated by Catholic Relief Services. Children who attended classes received a morning snack and a warm meal at the end of the day.
Awiapo was so hungry that he put aside his reservations about becoming a student. He ended up doing so well in school that he earned college scholarships. Now in his 40s, he has a master's degree in public administration from California State University. He's the father of four children, still lives in Ghana and does consulting work for CRS.
I heard Awiapo's story of loss and survival during his recent visit to Baltimore, where CRS is headquartered. A charming man with an arresting smile, he expressed in deeply emotional tones steadfast gratitude for the generosity of the American people.
"Food for education, school feeding really, really saved my life," Awiapo said. "You had 'USAID' written on all the bags of food and gallons of oil. Everything had the American flag on it. Any child saw that. We used to carry the food, so every child knew this food was coming from some caring Americans, people who believed that helping those in need was just part of being an American."
As I listened to Awiapo, I felt big pride in our country for finding ways over the years to help people in some of the most oppressed, poverty-stricken corners of the globe.
In Ghana, Awiapo said, local governments came to see the value of a school food program. As the country changed and grew, Ghanaians emulated the American idea and fed children where they took classes. The World Bank reports that Ghana cut its poverty rate in half between 1991 and 2012. The country has one of the highest levels of school enrollment in Africa, according to UNICEF.
I bring up Awiapo and his story because we seem to be going through one of those periods when Americans think about what it means to be one. It's a spillover from the controversy sparked by professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem — in solidarity with unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protest of police brutality last year, and in defiance of a president who said any such player was a "son of a bitch" who should be fired.
Many Americans seem fixated on the anthem protest as a grave insult to the U.S. military, past and present. That's a narrow view of the protest, but understandable. The national anthem is a song based on a battle — the heroic defense of Baltimore during the British naval bombardment of 1814. Starting with the American Revolution, so much of our narrative is about war that we primarily define patriotism as vigorous support for the military.
The draft ended in 1973, and, these days, one of the great divides in the country is between those who volunteer for military service and those who go nowhere near it. We compensate for that gap with patriotic pageants, many of them staged in sports arenas — thus the charge that football players violate sacred ground when they take a knee.
But, as NBC's Bob Costas pointed out Monday: "Patriotism comes in many forms, and what has happened is it's been conflated with a bumper-style kind of flag-waving and with the military only, so that people cannot see that, in his own way, Colin Kaepernick, however imperfectly, is doing a patriotic thing."
Protest is not an insult; it's an affirmation of freedom and a challenge to our fixed beliefs. America's greatness is not measured merely by military might and a history of sacrifice, but by that and much more — ask Thomas Awiapo, for one. In this big, messy republic, we should feel pride in all of it.