DILLON—Joan Rocha’s passion for teaching and faith in God recently led her to leave behind the familiar surroundings of local public schools in exchange for crowded classrooms in West Africa.
Rocha is a Dillon native who volunteers as a pianist at St. Louis Church and Church of the Infant Jesus Mission in Marion. She returned in July after a year of teaching English to students at St. Francis Senior High School for Girls in Jirapa, Ghana.
She had already spent many years as an English teacher when she decided to retire two years ago and pursue other interests.
Rocha said many factors led her to missionary work in Ghana. She read a book by the first missionary priest to the nation and heard inspiring stories about the country from a former student who studied there; from Father Henry Kulah, a native of Ghana who was pastor of her parish at the time; and a Franciscan sister from Ghana who visited Dillon.
“I just felt like I had to go see all this for myself,” Rocha said.
The school where she taught is run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and serves several hundred high school girls. English is an important subject because it is the official academic language in Ghana.
Rocha said conditions at the school were rustic, with frequent power outages and no air-conditioning. At night she saw many students standing outside on dormitory porches, struggling to read and study by the light of one pale bulb. Roofs on many of the buildings leaked, and there was no such thing as a long hot shower.
“The girls had to pump water and take a bucket of water back to their room, which would be their shower for the day,” she said.
Rocha rode around the area on a bicycle. Despite any hardships, she said the students she served were joyful, respectful and helpful, and loved their schoolwork.
“I was just impressed with the spirit of joy in their learning,” she said. “The Masses were very joyful too.”
Rocha treasures memories of attending adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with the Franciscan sisters who operate the school.
“I can’t explain how beautiful it was, so quiet, and the host was displayed in a very simple way,” she said. “We often get hung up with gold and jewels and things, but this was so special.”
She said during the month of October in Ghana, which is dedicated to Mary, large crowds filled churches and spilled into the streets to recite the rosary together.
The teacher also visited a Catholic-sponsored school that trained young women in weaving and culinary arts, two skills that can help them start their own small businesses.
Rocha was impressed with the bright, intricately patterned cloth the weavers created, and brought samples of it back to Dillon. She wants to show people the kind of work the African women do in hopes that others will support the project.
Also, she visited a church-run agricultural program, which teaches Ghanan women farming skills.
Since her return, Rocha is back in the classroom at Dillon High School. She continues to keep in touch with several of her students through letters and e-mail.
“I feel like part of me is still back in Ghana, like a part of my heart is just there,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that in day-to-day life it was such a spiritual place. The people don’t make a big deal about being spiritual, but you feel it.
“The whole experience nurtured my faith because it show[ed me] the loving power of God. It made me contemplate the life of Jesus,” she said.
Rocha said she wants her story to help nurture the missionary spirit in everyone.
“People should understand they are truly missionaries, through the gift of self, through their contribution to our church appeals, and most importantly to me, their prayers,” she said. “They are bringing the gift of our Lord to people around the world.”