AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq --
If Petty Officer 1st Class Tracy Roach, a religious program specialist with United States Force - West, had never left her hometown, she would mostly likely be married with four or five children, sell small goods as a store keeper, or she may have even learned to sew and become a seamstress in her town.
This may not seem like the dream of the average American child, and it’s not, because Roach was born and raised in a small town called Adukrom Akwapin in Ghana, Africa.
“When I look back now, I was the happiest child in the midst of not having much,” Roach explained. “I was so happy because I had my grandmother, my aunt, the church and my friends I grew up with.”
Roach’s home did not have electricity or plumbing, so they relied on light from a small lamp and water from public water stations in town.
“We had a little kerosene lamp, and I’d wake up in the morning and have soot in my nose,” said Roach. “There were two water stations in the whole town of about 3,000 people … the line was always so long, and then sometimes the pipes wouldn’t have water for a month at a time, so you had to go to the streams to get water. We also drank rainwater that we caught in barrels.”
Though Roach was not afforded the comforts of running water or electricity, she did have the opportunity to attend school.
“You have to pay school fees from kindergarten on up, and if your family doesn’t have the money to pay, you would get whipped,” recalled Roach. “You got knocked on the head if you were late or if you missed your homework, but still, school was so much fun. It was a competition - from 1st grade all the way up to junior high. We didn’t say, ‘oh, you passed.’ It was ‘who was first, second, third?’ And they had you form a line by what number you were in front of the whole school, so you always tried to be first.”
Roach experienced the strict discipline of her school firsthand, not only because her family’s financial hardships, but also because of a habit she picked up from her grandmother, who raised her until she was 16.
“You get beat up for talking in class,” explained Roach. “The class leader would take down names of the people who talked, and my name was always on the list because I talked all the time. They would put my name up first and if I talked, they would mark it, and if I didn’t they would cancel it. I got it from my grandmother … she talked forever.”
But, as Roach learned, her grandmother did not talk just to hear her own voice. Roach’s grandmother learned that a good conversationalist holds the key to coping with hardships and passed her wisdom onto Roach.
“We didn’t have money. We didn’t have much,” said Roach. “There was a lot of talking and singing. You could talk your way out of hunger … talk your way out of anything. It was all smiles and laughter and singing and sleep. If you’re hungry, go to sleep, and now that I think about it, it worked.”
And hunger was something Roach and her family dealt with on a daily basis.
“We had a meal once a day, usually in the evening. There was no breakfast or lunch,” explained Roach. “We ate a lot of carbohydrates like cassava and plantains … it would be mixed into a food called ‘fufu,’ which was kind of like a paste, and you ate it with soup. But, chicken, beef and goat were expensive. They were rich people’s food, and so was rice. If me or my aunt got sick, my grandmother would go buy rice, but if you’re not sick, rice and meats were for occasions like Christmas and Easter.”
Just before Roach turned 17 years old, her life changed quickly and drastically. Her father, who was a citizen of America but born in Ghana, traveled to Ghana and brought Roach back to the United States with him. After a stop in the capital city of Accra, Ghana, Roach found herself in Washington state.
“It was a culture shock, but it didn’t faze me for some reason. I think I was numb with everything, coming from a house where you don’t have anything to a house where you have a bedroom to yourself; it was like, ‘wow, come on!’”
After completing her last few years of high school in the U.S., Roach made the decision to join the Navy.
“I never thought about going to college, because I knew there was no money to go, so two months before graduation, I walked into the recruiter’s office,” said Roach. “I said, ‘okay, four years to get the money for college and I’ll get out.’ But thirteen years later, I’m still in.”
In 2000, while Roach was in the military, she gained U.S. citizenship, and three years later, went back to Ghana to reunite with her family.
“It was very emotional to see my grandmother. She’s been sick ever since I’ve known her, and just to see her … she was sitting in a little corner … and she said, ‘is that you?’ She was talking to me [in her native language], and I understood everything she said, but when I spoke back, it was with an accent, and they all laughed at me,” recalled Roach. “Everybody was looking at me differently, and that kind of hurt me a little bit. I didn’t want to be treated special; I was just like them.”
Though Roach has been in the U.S. for almost as many years as she lived in Ghana and now has a family of her own, she will never forget the lessons God and her grandmother taught her.
“Knowing God and the strength of my grandmother, who has never been through school, doesn’t know how to spell her name, and doesn’t know how to speak English, but was always smiling, always laughing … her wisdom and faith and hope in God is what has kept me alive. My grandmother used to say that you just have to smile at everything that comes your way, and smiling will conquer everything.”