With Trip to Ghana, Woman Happily Puts Focus on Service, Not Self

Epidemiologist Stacey Neloms, with husband Hank and children Daniel, 3, and Hannah, 2, had wanted to visit Africa for many years. She is there now, assisting with a malaria prevention project in Ghana.
Epidemiologist Stacey Neloms, with husband Hank and children Daniel, 3, and Hannah, 2, had wanted to visit Africa for many years. She is there now, assisting with a malaria prevention project in Ghana. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Stacey Neloms
Thursday, June 28, 2007

I am traveling this week to a rural village in Ghana, West Africa, to volunteer on a malaria prevention project. It's the fulfillment of a dream that has been delayed almost 20 years. In the meantime, I've built a pretty satisfying life for myself in and around Prince George's. I turned 40 in March, have a fulfilling new job, celebrated 10 years of marriage this year and am raising two little ones -- Daniel, 3, and Hannah, 2.

My decision to take this trip was not too surprising to my close friends, since I have talked about going to Africa since I turned down my first chance to go there 17 years ago. I was accepted into the Peace Corps back then, and my plan was to spend two years working in Africa, go to medical school and work/live abroad. But I went to visit a childhood friend and met the man who would change everything in an instant -- Hank Neloms.

He was sprawled on a couch, drinking a beer and watching television. He had kind eyes, a great smile and long, hairy legs (just like I like them). He was unlike any guy I had ever dated: strait-laced, dependable, a football fanatic (ugh!), with absolutely no interest in learning about other cultures or seeing the world. He even fell asleep during a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert!

He thought I was a bohemian. I believe "tea-drinking, tree-loving druid" was the term he used (a la Frasier Crane) during one of our arguments. He was the most infuriating, wonderful man I had ever met. I knew that I would be miserable in Africa without him, so I declined my Peace Corps offer and went to graduate school instead. I have no regrets about that choice because I married the guy and, 17 years later, he still makes my heart sing (and my blood boil).

I think the main difference between the young woman who wanted to see the world 20 years ago and the woman who is traveling to Ghana today is motivation. Back then, I think my motives were pretty selfish. I wanted to see the world, experience new things and have fun. Today, I still want to see the world, but now I strongly believe that my Christian faith calls me to serve others. The Bible says "each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). This is one way for me to do that.

Don't get me wrong -- I love to laugh and tremendously enjoy the comforts of life. I do not want to wash out of a bucket or use a "primitive toilet," and I don't relish the idea of a mosquito net. I will happily accept these things, though, because my desire is not to be comfortable but to serve. My prayer is that my trip will help prevent one case of malaria or one malaria-related death. I am troubled by the fact that a person's place of birth largely determines whether he or she will have access to food, shelter and adequate health care.

So here I am. By the time you read this, I hope to be in Humjibre. I am glad this is happening now rather than when I was younger. Back then, I was insecure, lost and trying to find myself. I was a mess. Today, I know who I am and believe both my service and experience will be more rewarding because of it.

I am a wife, mother of two, child of God and servant. My joints creak in the morning, I snore like a power saw and my doctor tells me to lose weight. I am uncertain about what is going to happen during this trip, but I am excited and so thankful to be alive.

It recently occurred to me that I may have already lived more than 50 percent of my life. The average life expectancy for an African American woman in the United States is around 74 years. My mother died in her 50s. Her death made me think about my own mortality. Being a Christian helps me not fear it. In the end, my deeds will speak for me. I just pray that there is something meaningful to say.

I'll keep you posted.

Stacey Neloms lives in Mitchellville and works as a senior epidemiologist at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Center for Immunization in Baltimore. She is also a doctoral candidate in infectious disease epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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