From Minnesota To West Africa: Peace Corps Dreams Turn Into Mission Reality For St. Paul Woman

Diane Yonga with students in her food and nutrition class Feb. 7 at St. Anne’s Girls Senior High School in Damongo, Ghana. Image: Diane Yonga via The Catholic Spirit


Since learning about the Peace Corps in high school, Diane Yonga of the Cathedral of St. Paul felt a tug that never went away to help the poor and hungry in Africa.

Decades later, her calling is being fulfilled through the Lay Mission-Helpers Association, a Catholic organization based in Los Angeles, as well as assistance from the Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

About nine months ago, Yonga, who turns 60 on World Mission Sunday, began serving a three-year stint in Ghana, West Africa, teaching food and nutrition to students at St. Anne’s Girls Senior High School, a boarding school about three miles outside the town of Damongo, on a rutted, bumpy dirt road.

She also is the school secretary and the school’s store keeper — keeping inventory and distributing food, household cleaning, office and school supplies.

Yonga lives in a bungalow with an LMH missionary from Pennsylvania. Together, they shop in the open air market and attend Church and school events and celebrations.

Making a difference

Yonga, who shared her story in a telephone interview and emails, believes she already is making a difference. For example, a girl sitting in the back of class wasn’t participating, her grades were not strong, and Yonga puzzled over how to bring her outside of herself and into the classwork.

So Yonga asked the students to present more of the information in class.

“She blossomed, presenting the information, showing what she knows,” Yonga said. “The last class of the semester she gave me a big hug. It made me feel like I did something to help her out.”

Yonga said she also has drawn close to the school’s headmistress, Madam Pauline.

“She is fairly new to the position and the school has many challenges, so she often confides in me and asks my opinion on matters,” Yonga said.

At the same time, Yonga is adjusting to cultural differences that include people placing relationships before making appointments on time.

“It’s a good value, people are important and time is not,” she said. But coming from the United States, where punctuality is prized, it has been an adjustment.

Ghanians also have traditional ways of addressing one another to show proper respect, and learning those nuances has been a challenge, Yonga said.

Madam Pauline has helped her navigate those waters, Yonga said, even as she helps the headmistress wade through stressful situations.

“I try to support and encourage her,” Yonga said.

An answer to prayers

Yonga said her long-held dream of serving in Africa was put on the back burner as she got married, learned more about that continent through her husband, who was from Cameroon, West Africa, (they divorced in 2014) and their network of friends. She learned about West African food, clothing, dance and other traditions. They also were busy raising three children. But when their youngest son started college, her dreams of missionary work reignited.

She also had begun placing God at the center of her life. She attended daily Mass, kept an hour of eucharistic adoration and began taking adult religious education courses. She graduated last year from the Archbishop Flynn Catechetical Institute at The
St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, volunteered at a Catholic Charities’ homeless shelter and made the Cathedral parish her home.

One day, praying in bed, she heard God speak in her heart: “Now is the time.”

“I immediately grabbed my laptop and Googled the Catholic Volunteer Network to find out more about long-term, overseas mission opportunities,” she said.

Within 24 hours, she connected with LMH and began the complicated preparations for going overseas: medical checkups, immunizations, psychological testing and contacting references.

One month later she applied, attended a three-day discernment weekend at LMH’s mission house in Los Angeles and was invited to a four-month formation and training program.

“There, I joined three other people who were feeling a similar calling. We lived in community in the mission house: We prayed morning and evening prayer together, attended daily Mass together, we cooked together, ate together, we cleaned together, we attended class together, we enjoyed free time together.”

Friends, family and Cathedral parishioners are among her sources of financial assistance, as well as a $1,000 grant from the Center for Mission’s Mustard Seed Mission Endowment fund, which she can seek each year she serves.

Everything fell into place and appeared to be God’s will, Yonga said. That gave her the courage to leave her family and friends, the Cathedral parish and venture across the Atlantic to Damongo.


It’s not been easy, but it’s been good, and full of surprises, Yonga said.

The heat is a challenge, with highs ranging from 99 to 112 and lows in the upper 70s and upper 80s. “Loss of electricity happens more frequently than I like; when there is no fan, one sweats all the time,” she said.

Women’s physical strength in Ghana strikes awe, she said.

“They carry everything on their heads. You never see a woman carrying anything but a handbag in her arms — everything goes to the head.

“Most of the farming is done by hand. We have one tractor with a small plow, but planting and harvesting is mostly done by hand.

“Animals: cows, goats, sheep, chickens are wandering all over. Everything is free range. Even in town, the animals can wander about. I often wonder how they know who is the owner of the various animals. There appears to be no fear of someone stealing them.”

Belief in God is very evident, among Christians and Muslims, she said.

“Television is full of religious programming. Prayer is allowed and starts all meetings — even those government-sponsored events. I am not bringing God to these people. God is here.”

Who is changing who?

In fact, Yonga said, she is convinced that God called her to mission work not to change others, but to broaden and strengthen her own faith, so she could contribute to the need for everyone to reach out with more love to others.

In addition, she is learning:

Simple life can be fulfilling, people all over the world want to be loved and respected, and she learns as much from the people in Ghana as they do from her.

“I was good at my relationship with God,” she said. “I gave him lots of quality time, but I think he was telling me that I am not just to have a one-on-one relationship with him, but I should also have a loving relationship with his people.”

“Sending me to Ghana — away from everything I am comfortable with — is stretching me to be a more rounded person, to become the best version of myself, to become the person God created me to be.”