The Family That No One Expected

After spending 35 days in Ghana, it’s been difficult trying to figure out how to get my thoughts and feelings written into stories. Each night while in Africa, I would try to journal about our days activities  but with all that we were experiencing, it would literally take me hours to express what was churning around in my head and the exhaustion would overtake me and I’d surrender to sleep. I ended up writing down the bare minimum of details, knowing that my mind would retain the stories that had deeply touched my heart.

The Family that No One Expected

After two years of planning and preparing for a Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Ghana, it was finally taking place. Bob and Sheila Downey from the U.S. had been making many of the arrangements from home while Patsy and Allan Fulton, Americans living in Ghana for 16 years, had been making arrangements in country.  I had come to help with the training of our volunteers and Greg would be helping with recreation.

We spent a day and a half training and then the families began arriving in the hotel lobby in the early evening. A bit unsure of what they were getting into, there was some apprehension in the air. In Ghana, people with disabilities are often thought of as cursed, babies often left in the bush to die on their own, forsaken by their own families and villages. But there are also those who dare to accept them, raise them, love them. These children often grow up shunned by the rest of society. Schools are not equipped to provide specialized education and most families cannot afford any kind of early intervention, let alone equipment like wheelchairs or braces or costly surgeries and rehab. People in Ghana who have disabilities most commonly grow up to become beggars in the streets. Coming to a Family Retreat where they would be in a loving and caring environment for four days in a nice hotel was a totally new concept for these families touched by disabilities.

The children for the most part simply seemed scared. We could not find the third family that arrived on our registration forms. There was a language barrier as we tried to understand the mother’s broken English.  We didn’t know anything about them. Each family had been invited by one of the local pastors who were helping us with the retreat and at first, no one seemed to know who had invited this family.

I went over and sat on the couch next to the two little girls who looked to be about 6 and 8. Mom sat on the end of the couch, her face expressionless, a baby boy on her back, hiding his face. Sheila asked her questions about her family, her husband seemed distant as he stood alone by the counter.  By the way the girls were looking at me, I could tell that they hadn’t come into contact with many white people (Obrunies) and their little brother was doing his best to pretend that I just wasn’t there. I introduced myself to the girls, sticking out my hand for them to shake, the oldest was quick to take it. This was the usual response of the Ghanaian kids, a bit fearful at first and then the intrigue of touching the Obrunies skin proved more than they could resist.

“What is your name?” I asked her.

“Agnes.” She replied, her little sister still a bit shy, was leaning away from me.

“And what’s your sister’s name?”

“Abigail.” She said.

“Hi Abby, nice to meet you.” As I put out my hand, she took it and gave me a shy smile.

“How about your little brother, what’s his name?” I asked pointing to the baby on her mother’s back who was still burying his face between his mother’s shoulder blades.


Ebenezer looked to be about 18-24 months but it was hard to tell, wrapped tightly to his mommy in the usual Ghanaian fashion, a large piece of fabric, twisted in place around a mother’s chest could hold new babies as well as large children securely on their mother’s backs where they were carried that way for hours.

“What is your son’s disability?” Sheila asked their mother.

“He has no arms.” I glanced over at him, it was difficult to tell, wrapped tightly in his safe cocoon.  I took out my glow-in-the-dark bracelets and gave them to the girls, threw in a few tickles and they were soon giggling.

Because we had a family cancel due to illness, this family would be able to stay but there remained some confusion as to how they got there other than simply, God had planned it, we had not.

After the families got settled, we had a welcome ceremony with silly songs and skits. Unsure of how these typically reserved people would respond, we were very happy to see them clap and holler as we interacted with them and got the crowd worked up.

We then moved outside under the trees for an ice cream social. Abby and Agnes soon found me, Abby attaching herself to my hip for the next three days. I would walk around holding her and marveling at what the Lord was doing. I had been so excited to come to Ghana because I knew that this was an English speaking country. I had planned it out so that I could talk directly to the people, not needing a translator. I had planned it out. Wouldn’t you know it, Abby spoke very little English. Children would learn English in elementary school, Abby had just started but her older sister, Agnes had been in school for three years so she was very fluent, sometimes translating for me when she was with us. If she was not, Abby would jabber away at me, then look at me perplexed, trying to figure out why I wouldn’t have a clue as to what she was saying.  But she understood my gestures, she knew what to do when I opened my arms, she came to sit upon my lap. There was a word which I had learned and when I called to her saying, “Bra!” She would come running. She would walk along beside me, holding my hand or often take both my hands, pulling herself up into my arms. This little one soon stole my heart and it seemed as though the Lord gave us a way to communicate the most important thing of all, his love. I would hold Abby for hours, my arms aching, unwilling to put her down, not wanting this lifelong dream to end.  Often on the verge of tears, I’d push the emotions aside.

Her little brother on the other hand, was terrified of us Obrunies. Bernard, a young Ghanaian man who was assigned to be Ebenezer’s buddy, spent hours tenderly holding Ebenezer on his lap. Now, out of his mother’s wrap, long sleeves covering his arms, I could tell that this little boy did not have hands but he did have forearms (possibly caused by a condition called, symbrachydactyly). When I would get anywhere close to him, he would put his little arms up to his face and cover his eyes, the shirt sleeves always hiding his disability.

I watched this family, who always seemed to sit on the outskirts, away from the others, their little boy so timid and shy. The parents sat together yet miles apart, little communication happening between the two of them, a burden for them growing within me.

The second morning, as we gathered together for a time of devotions with the volunteers (also known as STMs- Short Term Missionaries), the Lord was prompting me to share this burden. When the pastor finished speaking, I stood up.

“I have something that I need to talk to you all about. The Lord has really put Ebenezer and his family on my heart. His mother covers his arms out of shame, perhaps hoping to hide the fact that he has no hands but if he is always put in long sleeve shirts, he will not be able to fully use his arms, he will in fact, be limited by the shame. He is terrified of me so I need all of you Ghanaians to love this family, to tell that mother what a precious son she has, to hug him and love on him and let him know how special he truly is.”

We dismissed the group and about 30 minutes later, I saw Ebenezer sitting on Bernard’s lap in the children’s program, wearing short sleeves! I was a little perplexed. Had I not heard the Lord right? Perhaps I totally read the situation wrong and here was Ebenezer in short sleeves! Truthfully, I felt a bit of embarrassment wash over me. During break time, bananas were passed out for snakes along with cans of Milo, a chocolate milk drink.

A few minutes later, I was approached by two of our STMs who were very excited.

“Kara, look!” William said to me, showing me his camera.

“We talked to the mother after devotions this morning!” added Pastor Joel. “We talked to her about what you said and told her that she shouldn’t be ashamed of Ebenezer! She took him back to their room and put a short sleeved shirt on him! For the first time, he is using his arms to drink out of a can, all by himself!”

“You mean, this morning, he was wearing a long sleeve shirt?” I stared at the camera in disbelief.

“Yes! Janet went and took him out of it right away!” Joel and William were standing in front of me with the biggest grins on their faces. I thanked them for showing me that picture. Once again, I found myself holding back tears but inside, my heart was overflowing. “Thank you, Jesus!”

Later that day, as we sat in the conference room for a time of worship with the kids, Bernard came and gently took my camera from my hands. He knew that Ebenezer became afraid when I went near him so he had put Ebenezer down on a chair next to his sister, he got my camera and went back to take pictures for me. Sitting in a chair by himself next to his sister, putting a flute to his mouth, playing along with Agnes, Ebenezer was smiling.

The final morning, Sheila invited the families to share what this retreat had meant to them. Ebenezer’s father, Raphael stood up and began to speak. His wife had been thrown out of their family home because she had given birth to a son with a disability. He had felt pressure to divorce her. Now, after experiencing this retreat and the love that God has for Ebenezer, he was choosing to make his marriage work.

Shortly after we finished up, the families prepared to leave.  In the states, this process took hours, packing up their specialized equipment, suitcases of clothes, getting everything into their cars. But in Ghana, it took only minutes. The families packed their few belongings in a suitcase or a couple of bags. Not a people who display their emotions, a handshake, a quick goodbye and then they began walking towards the main road to catch a taxi. Sheila came out and told me that the kitchen was fixing food for these families, let them know we would send them home with something to eat. I ran down the street, asking them to come back. Janet and Raphael turned back with their kids. At that moment, I remembered the bracelet that I had brought with me from the states. It was something that I had bought at Joni’s International Disability Center. It was made of copper, silver and brass with hearts and crosses and the words, faith, hope, and love written around it.

“Janet, I’ll be right back, I have something for you, micobra.” I said, hoping that I had remembered the fante word correctly for, “I go and come right back.” Running up the stairs, I prayed, “Lord, help me to find that bracelet!” I wasn’t quite sure where in my suitcase, I had put it. I unlocked the door to our room and found it quickly. Running back out of the lobby, Janet was still waiting outside.

“Pastor Joel, will you please translate for me?” I said, waving him over. Nodding yes, he came and stood with us. I turned back to Janet, holding the bracelet out to her, she raised up her arm and I slipped it onto her wrist, “God has made you a strong woman, Janet, he will give you everything that you need to raise Ebenezer, to love him and teach him, the Holy Spirit will guide you. I want this bracelet to remind you that God has entrusted you with this very special little boy.”

She listened to Joel translate, her face turned towards him, then she looked directly into my eyes and with a soft smile she said, “Thank you, thank you very much.”

I patted her arm, not wanting to scare Ebenezer who was once again, tied onto his mother’s back but this time, he just looked at me over her shoulder, not shying away or covering his face. I found myself wishing for more time, wondering how much more we might see this little boy blossom if we had more than just 4 days.

Janet leaned over and picked up her things and their bagged lunch, then joined her husband Raphael and daughters, Abby and Agnes who were waiting at the gate. They were returning back to reality but with a new found hope. They were ready to walk that road together.


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  1. Kara: What a story of love and God’s mighty power! Pastor George Ghanem has been in touch with these families and truly they are standing up for their disabled children both in families and community. Even on the “couples” night, as Mom & Dad sat there looking somewhat lost, Raphael the father, was the first to share with the couples what had happened to him at the family retreat. His thinking about his wife and child had changed after hearing the testimony of Pastor Cordell Brown and the Bible teaching of Pastor George Ghanem. Great story of true love (God’s way).

  2. Rev. Edward Ahiake says

    Kara, a good story. You are a blessing.

  3. what a story, kera, God bless you for ur wonderful message it really touch my heart Godbless you.

  4. How awesome a testimony. We will never know the hearts you have touched on this side, But — most importantly I know it touched the heart of our Lord and Savior who I know has a special heart for those with disabilities. Well done good and faithful servants.
    How beautiful Ebenezer and his family.
    I admit I am envious that I wasn’t there with you! I left Ghana too soon!God’s richest blessings to my friends to continue His work with His beloved.

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